Disparities in academic preparation during K-12 key force in college enrollment gaps

A new report from the Brookings Institution Center on Families and Children drives home the lasting consequences of disparities in students’ level of academic preparation during K-12, finding that those gaps contribute significantly to socioeconomic, racial, and gender imbalances in college enrollment, according to Higher Ed Dive. For the analysis, researchers evaluated whether 15,090 students enrolled in a two- or four-year institution within 18 months of their expected high school graduation and measured their academic preparation using GPA, course-taking, and math test scores.

Researchers found that 88.9% of students in the top socioeconomic quintile enrolled in a two- or four-year institution, compared to 51.2% of students in the bottom quintile—a nearly 38 percentage point gap. However, the gap shrank to 11 percentage points when researchers compared those same socioeconomic groups but controlled for students’ level of academic preparation.

Racial and gender disparities in college enrollment also shrank dramatically when the researchers controlled for academic preparation, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Without factoring in academic preparation, Asian students (83%) have the highest postsecondary enrollment rates, followed by white (72%), Latinx (63%), and Black students (62%). However, when controlling for academic preparation, Black students (79%) are the most likely to enroll, followed by Latinx (76%), white (72%), and Asian students (71%).

The study authors say their results reinforce the need for policymakers and researchers to look beyond college admissions practices and costs of attendance and “pay careful attention to disparities in academic preparation during elementary and secondary education, which are important determinants of college enrollment.”

Related: How can we better connect secondary and postsecondary education? >

Postsecondary institutions have a role to play in narrowing these disparities by collaborating with elementary and secondary schools to expand access to higher education and meeting prospective college students where they are, Nathan Grawe, a professor of economics at Carleton College, tells The Chronicle. “[E]ven if [students] don’t have the preparation that we might ideally hope for, they nevertheless can find a path into and through higher education.”

Related: How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline >

Application numbers up, Common App finds

Meanwhile, a new report from the Common App shows growth in the number of college applicants, particularly those from underrepresented groups, Inside Higher Ed reports. According to Common App data, the total number of distinct first-year applicants through Jan. 1, 2023, (1,079,936) was up 19.5% compared with 2019-20 numbers (903,553). The number of underrepresented minority (URM) applicants rose by 30% in 2022-23, compared to 2019-20, while the number of first-generation applicants increased by 35%. The growth in the number of applications from students reporting eligibility for a Common App fee waiver (47%) was more than four times the growth in the number of applicants who did not report fee waiver eligibility (11%).

Despite the increase in URM and first-gen applicants, Common App notes that 56% of domestic applicants resided in the most affluent quintile (top 20%) of zip codes nationwide, while just 6% resided in the least affluent quintile.

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