Closing the College-Going Gap: Creating Opportunities for All

It’s a question that many school districts continue to discuss: How do we create equitable schools that provide all students an opportunity to reach their full potential socially, emotionally, and academically? 

One goal for many if not most schools is to develop students who have college-going potential upon graduation from high school. More pointedly, schools across the nation need to identify a plan to create more thoughtful, compassionate, and collaborative efforts to provide better access and equity for postsecondary options for all students. This is particularly true for students of color and those from low-income communities who remain largely underrepresented on many college campuses across the nation. Often referred to as the “higher education demographic imperative”—which contends that there is a need to address the chronic underrepresentation of various segments in college—all K-12 schools can play a role in helping to close the college-going gap.

What the Data Says

Postsecondary education has been viewed as an escalator mechanism of sorts, wherein individuals who attain higher levels of education have higher incomes over time, better qualities of life, and greater access to educational, residential, health, and medical services. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. postsecondary institutions will enroll more than 20 million students by 2024. As the number of enrollees has increased, historically marginalized groups have witnessed their numbers grow as well.

Additional data from the National Center for Education Statistics reported that college enrollment rates for African-American, Latino, and Asian-American groups increased significantly between 1976 and 2015. Three specific groups that merit a unique focus where access to and success in postsecondary education are concerned would be African-American, Latino, and low-income students. Despite increases over the past several decades, these three groups still lag dramatically behind their Asian-American, white, and more affluent peers in postsecondary pursuits.

One critical step to closing the college-going gap is to recognize the opportunity gaps that many students face. African-American, Latino, and low-income students are less likely to finish high school, less likely to attend college, and less likely to graduate when they get there, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This is more disconcerting when considering that these groups—Latinos in particular—will continue to make up a larger part of the U.S. student and general populations in years to come. Pathways to college must be explored, and equitable opportunities must be made available to all students.

The “AP Potential Gap”

An area of their equity practices that districts can start to examine is access to Advance Placement courses across various groups. Data from the College Board indicates that African-American and Latino students with high academic potential—as measured by PSAT scores, which have been found to correlate strongly with success in certain AP courses—are significantly less likely than their Asian-American and white counterparts to be enrolled in AP classes. Of students who graduated from high school in 2011, only about 20 percent of black and about 30 percent of Latino students took an AP exam for which they had potential, compared with around 38 percent and nearly 58 percent of their white and Asian peers, respectively. 

Test-taking is important in college pursuits. There have been considerable discussions about why such an “AP potential gap”—the difference between the number of students with potential to succeed in AP classes and the number who actually enroll—exists. What are the implications? For individual students and their parents, this matters for college admission, cost, and success. AP or other advanced courses are often a de-facto admission requirement to selective universities, with many universities giving added weight to students who complete AP courses or receive a passing score on an AP exam. Colleges may also grant students college credit for AP coursework, which can lower the total costs of college and reduce students’ time to degree completion. Additionally, strong AP exam scores can also qualify students for scholarships and financial aid.

Thus, in attempting to challenge all schools districts to be better and more mindful of closing college-going gaps, I would offer the following steps to support all students:

  • Start having the conversation: Many students from low-income backgrounds and students of color often state that no one ever has conversations with them about pursuing college. It is vital that school counselors and teachers have conversations about applying to college, college requirements, deadlines, and tests that many students are frequently unaware of in their academic experiences. Telling students that they have college potential, or that you can envision them on a college campus, can be vital to building the idea in students’ minds that college can be within their grasp.
  • Organize and take college field trips: Perhaps one of the most critical steps that schools can implement is to take students to visit colleges and universities. In my time as a college professor, I have been surprised to learn that many students have never been on a college campus, despite the fact that many schools are located in close proximity to colleges and universities. The ability to see a campus, interact with students from similar backgrounds, and demystify the college experience can be transformative for many students.
  • Fortify the pipeline: Many students have college aspirations but do not have the grades or the academic skills to realistically be a competitive applicant. Hence, college preparation should begin in elementary school, including efforts to help build and sustain foundational literacy and numeracy skills, which are crucial to helping students to become academically strong. Many schools should consider intense academic intervention for students early and often to help prevent academic shortcomings from becoming chronic.
  • Mention community college as an option: Many schools that do discuss college-going culture typically place the focus exclusively on four-year universities. But schools need to make sure that students are exposed to the value and importance of community colleges. Not only are community colleges a viable option for technical or vocational skills that can lead to fortifying careers, but they can also be a cheaper way to attain a four-year degree. Finally, community colleges can be a vital pathway for students who get serious about their academics later in life or they do not have the financial resources to pay for four years at a university.
  • Create a college-going culture: Elementary and secondary schools can accomplish this task by posting college banners and colors in their hallways and classrooms. Many high schools have college days, where teachers and staff where T-shirts and sweatshirts from their alma maters. Moreover, having guidance counselors available at the secondary level for mentoring and advising students is crucial. Creating an environment that normalizes college and career is important to building and sustaining a college-going culture where all students can see themselves on college campuses.

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Blog contributor Dr. Tyrone C. Howard, professor and associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion at  UCLA, will speak about topics related to access and equity at the 2018 Leadership Academy on Nov. 2-4 in Atlanta, Georgia. You can also book a keynote with Dr. Howard to bring his expertise to your school or district.