How Can We Help Students Match College Aspirations to College Enrollment?

Analysis of newly released survey data on a nationally representative study of high school students from freshman year through graduation and beyond shows a troubling pattern for students from low-income families.

Like almost all their classmates, these students began 9th grade with high aspirations of going to college. But by junior year, their expectations declined considerably—even for those who scored well on a standardized math test.

For all student groups, enrollment (students already enrolled or with imminent plans to enroll) into Bachelor’s degree programs right after high school was lower than the students’ expectations. That said, the data did highlight some high school experiences that were significantly associated with college enrollment. Students who took AP, IB, and other dual-credit courses were more likely than other students to enroll (or have imminent plans to enroll) in Bachelor’s programs.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ High School Longitudinal Survey (HSLS: 09) started with a nationally representative sample of students enrolled in 9th grade in 2009. Researchers surveyed the students again in 2012, when most were in 11th grade. Among the information collected from the 944 schools in the survey were two questions about students’ aspirations and expectations for going to college:

On students’ aspirations: How sure are you that you will go on to pursue a bachelor’s degree after you leave high school?

On students’ expectations: As things stand now, how far in school do you think you will get?

Finally, in 2013, the HSLS researchers surveyed student enrollment in college.

Overall, student aspirations started sky high: 99 percent of incoming high school freshmen were either “very sure” that they would pursue a Bachelor’s degree or thought they “probably” would. By their junior year, though, just 81 percent of all students surveyed expected to earn at least a Bachelor’s degree.

Students from low-income families saw the largest drop between their initial aspirations in 9th grade and their expectations in 11th grade. About 40 percent of these students no longer expected to earn a Bachelor’s degree, even if they had demonstrated relatively high math achievement.

For our analysis, we first put students into three groups based on their families’ socioeconomic status (SES), which included their parents’ income, occupational prestige, and educational attainment. Students were also classified as having a relatively high or low achievement based on a ninth grade standardized math test score. This created six groups—based on high, mid, or low socioeconomic status and high or low math scores.

Graph: Comparing college students' aspirations

Enrollment Findings:

  • Bachelor’s degree program enrollment for affluent, high-scoring students (82 percent) was nearly twice that of similarly high-scoring students from less affluent backgrounds (43 percent).
  • College enrollment for low-scoring students from high-income backgrounds was much higher (58 percent) than enrollment of high-scoring students from low-income families (43 percent).
  • Across all three groupings of socioeconomic status, students with high scores on the ninth-grade math test enrolled in Bachelor’s degree programs (or had imminent plans to enroll) at consistently higher rates than students with low scores. Students in the middle socioeconomic group had the largest enrollment gap (63 percent vs. 37 percent), indicating that academic achievement may be an especially important factor for middle-income students considering college enrollment. 

These new data confirm what most educators and policymakers have long known—students who perform better academically and come from more privileged family backgrounds are more likely to enroll in Bachelor’s degree programs. However, policymakers have another important factor to consider.  

We found that taking part in Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or other dual-credit courses offered to high school students may help moderate some of the negative impacts of socioeconomic factors on enrollment in Bachelor’s degree programs.

Among those enrolled in Bachelor’s degree programs, 79 percent of high-scoring, low-income students took at least one AP, IB, or other dual-credit course. And across all three socioeconomic groups, most who will continue to study at a college had taken at least one college-level course in high school.

AP, IB, and other dual-credit courses may play a strong supporting role on a student’s pathway to college. Closing the enrollment gap between these low-income students and their more affluent counterparts means that education leaders and policymakers should not only continue to expand access to these leg-up courses, but also consider a range of additional supports for low-income students to raise their levels of college readiness and help them complete these advanced courses successfully.

Sakiko Ikoma is a researcher at AIR, working on research projects focused on analyzing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the High School Longitudinal Study.

Markus Broer is a principal researcher and psychometrician at AIR, supporting research projects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and providing technical assistance to the National Center for Education Statistics.