High school wealth best predicts college enrollment—and persistence

Data sheds new light on an old problem

Data released by the National Student Clearinghouse on Tuesday shows that the students from high-income high schools are not only more likely to attend college, they are also more likely to persist to their second year.

The data tracked the educational outcomes of about 3.5 million high-school graduates who were classified as having come from either high- or low-income schools based on the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches. Schools were further divided by setting (urban/suburban/rural) and level of racial diversity.

Researchers found:

  • The overall income of a high school was the strongest predictor of a graduate's likelihood to attend college.
  • Students from high-income, low-minority, and suburban schools attended college immediately after graduating 73% of the time. In contrast, only 47% of graduates from low-income, low-minority, suburban and rural schools did the same.
  • High school income alone did not predict a student's likelihood to choose a four-year program—roughly half of students from most school types attended two-year colleges. However, at high-income, low-minority high schools, fewer graduates who attended college did so at two-year programs. 

Related: How to attract low-income, high-ability students

Students from higher-income schools were also more likely to persist beyond freshman year. Between 83% and 89% of students from high-income schools retained to their second year. In contrast, students from low-income, low-minority, rural high schools persisted at the lowest rate, only 75%.

Uniquely, the data released by the National Student Clearinghouse tracks students even if they have transferred or reenrolled. For instance, at four-year universities, between 83% and 93% of students maintain their enrollment in a program after one year—while persistence rates released by the ACT fall between 64% and 69%.

The authors of the report note that "School-based resources are especially important for students from families in which no adults have attended college," and say they hope the data will focus attention on student populations which need more assistance in navigating the college enrollment process (National Student Clearinghouse, High School Benchmarks 2014 Report; Bidwell, U.S. News & World Report, 10/14).

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