by Jenny Mills
I have attended many high school graduation ceremonies where the principal or other featured speaker proudly announces how many students have applied to college and how much money the graduating class has been awarded in scholarships. The data cited at commencement is always impressive, yet overall degree attainment levels for these same high schools are pretty low in comparison when one looks at either state-level or institutional-level data. What does recent research in college access have to say about this disparity?
Cash flow: Even before high school graduation, college-bound students can be hit with fees they are financially unprepared to cover. For example, dorm housing deposits are often due before a student can access his financial aid. Also, once classes start, a first-year student will need to buy textbooks and other school supplies to complete his coursework, but depending on the policies in place at his postsecondary institution’s bookstore, he may not be able to draw down his financial aid until the first 30 days of the semester have passed, at which point he will be hopelessly behind in his school work. This lag time especially creates problems for low-income students who often have no cash reserves to cover these expenses and no bank accounts or credit cards they can use until their aid clears. Research has demonstrated that even small fees can be a big barrier for low-income students.
Undermatching: Compelling research has demonstrated repeatedly that low-income students and students of color undermatch when it comes to college choice – that is, they choose less prestigious or selective colleges or universities than their more affluent or white peers, despite similar levels of academic preparedness. Students who undermatch end up attending institutions that are closer to home but have fewer resources to direct to student instruction and supportive services, such as comprehensive academic advising, which can help with retention and graduation rates. As a result, students who undermatch graduate at lower rates than students who choose colleges that are a better fit for their academic profile. For academically elite students, undermatching often has direct financial consequences, as many selective colleges have financial aid policies that significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the net price for these students.
Summer melt: A phenomenon where students who have completed the necessary steps for admission and financial aid don’t end up attending college. Summer melt happens disproportionally with low-income and first-generation students for a variety of reasons – they end up employed with work schedules that don’t accommodate college classes, family emergencies happen and they are called upon to help provide care for siblings or other family members, etc. Research has demonstrated that high school counselors who keep in touch with students over the summer before college can stave off summer melt, and there has also been some indication that even simple text message reminders can help students take the steps they need to in order to actually start classes.
Remedial coursework: Nationwide, less than half of all high school graduates earn scores on standardized tests that indicate they are “college-ready” and able to handle college-level coursework. Increasing numbers of students, especially at community colleges, are placed into remedial coursework, which are high school-level classes they must complete before they are eligible for college-level classes in that subject area. Students who must take remedial coursework have much lower retention and graduation rates than other students, and some research suggests that if students were able to move right into college-level work without taking remedial courses, they would be more successful. For more information about how pre-dual enrollment can help address the need for remedial coursework in college, check out Bob Obrohta’s post on the subject.
Academic advising: In general, students are taking more credits than necessary to attain their degree, and some students, especially those who are first generation, find the process of selecting courses for their degree or certificate program overwhelming. Postsecondary institutions that use faculty advisors may rely heavily on adjunct, or temporary, faculty. These temporary faculty members may not be on campus regularly; they may not be available to respond to student questions in a timely manner, and they may not be deeply familiar with the registration requirements and procedures of the particular institution. Students who do not receive personalized and highly-informed advising may end up using their finite financial aid dollars to take classes that do not count toward their degrees or certificates, resulting in drop outs or cut backs to part time once their aid runs out. As a result, students take longer to obtain their degrees.
Grit: The stick-to-it factor closely related to motivation, grit describes the extent to which students persist when they encounter obstacles. Research indicates that grit is a better predictor of success than IQ score, and is closely linked to conceptions of learning and intelligence. A leading researcher in the field has posited that due to the life challenges and academic environment students at two-year colleges face, it takes the same amount of grit to earn an associates degree as it does to earn a Ph.D.