How Academic Preparation Influences College Enrollment Gaps

How much do students’ high school academic preparations influence their decision to enroll in college? This is the question Brookings Institution researchers examined in a recent report. Some of their findings include:

  • College enrollment rates vary by socioeconomic status. About 89% of well-off families go to college; 64% of middle-class families; and 51% of students from low-income families. These gaps are more prominent for four-year institutions where students in the top 40% are more likely to attend than the bottom 60%.
  • Girls are still more likely to go to college than boys with 73% of girls and 64% of boys enrolling in either a two-year or four-year college. Gender makes more of a difference in four-year college enrollment where 49% of girls and 40% of boys enroll.
  • Differences in enrollment by race/ethnicity reveal that Asian students are significantly more likely to enroll in college. 83% of Asian high school students enroll in college followed by 72% of white, 63% of Hispanic, and 62% of Black students. While Hispanic students are more likely to enroll in two-year institutions, Asian, Black, and white students are more likely to enroll in four-year institutions.

How Academic Preparation Influences EnrollmentIt’s not surprising to learn that high school students who took more rigorous course work and have high scores are more likely to go to college. The nuance that researchers found was that “Black, Hispanic, and Asian students with similar high school grades, test scores, and rigorous course work…enrolled in college at a rate about five percentage points higher than white students with similar academic preparation.”

However, viewing gaps through the socioeconomic lens reveals that students who are the most socioeconomically advantaged are 39 points more likely to enroll in college than students who are the most socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Even though students’ actions and intentions are reflected in rigorous curriculum and high scores, there is a lot that students can’t control about their preparation for college. For example, students might not take advanced courses as they’re not available at their school or they might have to work while in school with no time for study. The researchers determined that:

“Structural racism or discrimination in and out of school influences academic preparation, which in turn may explain disparities in college enrollment. Similarly, differences by gender may, in part, arise due to differences in how boys and girls are socialized.”

The researchers note the lack of equity in accessing college is usually considered in terms of the admissions process and costs. They suggest that policy makers also consider the disparities in academic preparation to close some of the gaps impacted by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. They conclude that “A fair educational and economic system would ensure that all students who want to attend college have the academic preparation necessary to do so.”