Research Perspectives

Who gets access to postsecondary education?*

A couple of months back, we examined achievement outcomes for urban school students using the latest release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The data generally revealed slow progress across grades and subjects in the last decade. Improvements for students of color and low-income students attending urban schools was often faster than the national average, helping to narrow achievement gaps. Other data documents a steadily increasing graduation rate with students of color making slightly faster progress thus narrowing the attainment gap. In this post, we examine how these improvements in K-12 are translating to access to postsecondary education. Although the high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, we know a high school diploma no longer guarantees access to a family-sustaining wage in the 21st-century knowledge economy. We ask, are we providing all students equal access to postsecondary education?

We use new data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS) to examine postsecondary enrollment. This National Center for Educational Statistics longitudinal study tracks a nationally representative sample of students who were in 9th grade in 2009, through high school graduation and into higher education and the workforce. Overall, 92 percent of all fall 2009 ninth-graders had earned a high school diploma and 72 percent had enrolled in some type of postsecondary education. Most students enrolled immediately after high school; 36 percent enrolled at a public 2-year college, 41 percent at a public 4-year college, 16 percent at a private 4-year college and 7 percent attended a for-profit or other institution.


Postsecondary Enrollment by Institution Level
Postsecondary Enrollment by Institution Level

However, average numbers mask gaps in college going. For example, approximately 76 percent of White students had enrolled, compared to 65 percent of Black students and 68 percent of Hispanic students. The differences are starker by socioeconomic status; whereas 91 percent of the highest SES students enrolled in college, only 56 percent of the lowest SES students did (71% of the three middle quintiles did).

Postsecondary Enrollment by Ethnicity

This is not a simple preparation issue, gaps exist across all GPA levels. For example, 83 percent of the lowest SES students whose GPAs ranged from 3-3.5 enrolled in college compared to 96 percent of the highest SES students (89% for the middle quintiles). Another way of looking at this, the highest GPA (>3.5), lowest SES students enrolled in college at just about the same rate as average performing, high SES students (89%).

For students of color, there is some good news. Some gaps are closing. For example, the average enrollment in college of students with a B or better average is 93%; both White and Hispanic students enroll at this rate. Black students enroll at a lower rate (89%). However, when we dive a little deeper and look at where these academically strong students of color are enrolling and what degree they expect to earn, we see a different pattern emerge.  White, Black and Hispanic students enroll at different rates in 4-year colleges (78%, 76%, and 72%) and credential programs (bachelor’s degree, 75%, 67%, and 65% respectively).

Many educators are working hard to break long-standing patterns of who has access and is successful in college. Check out the spotlight on The O’Farrell Charter School who has a 100% graduation rate; most students(~95%) go on to college, university or technical school. The remaining students enlist in the military but still plan on earning a degree. As one student said about her teachers, “They say, ‘We’re not here to force you guys to go to college. We’re here to make sure you are ready for it. And, in case you choose not to go, you have a backup plan. But, you are still prepared for college.’” If you want to learn more about their practices, join us at our America’s Best Urban Schools Symposium. O’Farrell is hosting a school visit on October 8th and will participate on a panel with other leaders of successful urban high schools who are featured in a forthcoming book, Five Practices for Improving the Success of Latino Students: A Guide for Secondary School Leaders.


* NCUST analysis of HSLS (2009) data using powerstats (available at:

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