Want to close college access gaps? Take action by 9th grade, study says.

Many students who could succeed in college will never make it there, and a new report highlights the crucial role that middle and high schools play in determining students’ likelihood of postsecondary success. Studying the educational trajectory of 7,000 students, researchers found that very few students who are “off track” at the end of ninth grade ever enroll in college—and that, even in eighth grade, there are warning signs that could prompt educators to step up support.

To better understand how districts might increase college readiness for all students, researchers from consulting groups EY-Parthenon and Springpoint Schools tracked students in five New England school districts from 8th grade through high school graduation in 2016; they also used National Student Clearinghouse data to determine the students’ “postsecondary trajectory” two years after leaving high school.

College access pipeline starts early

The analysis—funded by the Barr Foundation—revealed significant socioeconomic and racial disparities in college enrollment but “comparatively meager” disparities in persistence among students who matriculated at four-year schools. “The real gap is in who gets to go to those schools, not in whether they can succeed once they get there,” study co-author and Springpoint Executive Director Elina Alayeva, told The 74.

Students who attended two-year colleges, however, had far lower persistence than students in four-year programs, suggesting that the latter are “providing the strong supports predictive of success.”

According to the report, school districts seeking to put more students on the path to a four-year degree should closely monitor metrics such as attendance, suspensions, and course failure— numbers “that any district can be tracking”—as early as eighth grade, and intervene quickly where needed. Specifically, researchers found that:

  • By the time they entered high school, students who had at least one warning indicator in eight grade were more than five times less likely than peers with no warning signs to be on track for success in a four-year postsecondary program.
  • There’s little motion from “off-track” to “on-track” and vice versa after ninth grade. Eighty-five percent of students who were off track for post-secondary success at the end of ninth grade remained off track.
  • Access to “academically rigorous and relevant learning experiences” is often inconsistent across subgroups even within individual schools and districts. Students who had an early warning indicator in eighth grade, economically disadvantaged students, and Black and Latinx students were 60-75 percent less likely to take an advanced course.

How can high schools better support learners?

The findings, the authors write, show the importance of considering “how learning experiences at the high school level can better support students on the path to post-secondary success.” With the report findings in hand, participating districts are taking steps to strengthen all students’ postsecondary trajectories.

The Maldon Public Schools district in Massachusetts hired a dedicated guidance counselor to focus on freshmen and smooth the eighth-to-ninth grade transition. Connecticut’s 21,000-student Hartford Public Schools district, meanwhile, has created a one-month Summer Bridge Program that prepares students for the rigors of high school between their eighth- and ninth-grade years, paying students a $100 weekly stipend to participate.

In addition, the district is focused on relationship building as a low-cost “secret ingredient,” pairing students with a “go-to teacher” for their ninth-grade year and a career-aligned mentor for their sophomore through senior years. “Not only are students developing a strong, personal relationship with that teacher, but also that person will hopefully help to leverage their own networks to support [students] in their career or postsecondary pursuits,” Justin Taylor, the Hartford district’s director of educational initiatives and innovation.

Adding that Hartford also would like to implement intensive tutoring and flexible schedules for students juggling work obligations, Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez says such changes will help ensure the district isn’t “perpetuating…barriers and inequities.”

How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline
Through a new initiative called The Pivotal Network, Georgetown University is connecting high school teachers, professors, colleges, and students to address “undermatching”—the disconnect between students’ academic talents and their college attendance that results from systemic barriers in the college access pipeline.

The Pivotal Network focuses especially on supporting, celebrating, and elevating the work of outstanding high school educators, who play a crucial role in shaping the educational trajectories of first-generation, low-income students. Learn more in this FEED story.

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