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'Condition of Education' Looks at College Transition

The National Center for Education Statistics releases its annual mammoth "Condition of Education" report this morning, with a full briefing expected later this afternoon. Private and postsecondary schools are hot topics this year.

There will be plenty to dig into in the weeks to come, but I wanted to draw your attention to the easily overlooked Indicator 21 on the transition from high school to college. It shows that, overall, students have become more likely to enroll directly in a two- or four-year college by the fall after high school graduation: 70 percent of graduating seniors did so in 2009-2010, up from 62 percent in 2001 and only 51 percent back in 1975.

That's good news for the folks who have been pushing college readiness lately—or is it? Take a closer look at the breakdown, and you'll see that while students from all socioeconomic backgrounds have been trundling along for awhile now, making slow but steady growth here, in the last few years, students from low-income families have trailed off, starting to delay higher education in the wake of dismal economic forecasts and dwindling financial aid. In 2009, only 55 percent of graduates from low-income families immediately enrolled in a two- or four-year college, hugely trailing the rates of high-income students, at 84 percent, and middle-class students, at 67 percent.

"Students have to make more consumerist decisions now about when to go to college," explained Jennifer R. Keup, the director for the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, at the University of South Carolina. "So the students who normally would have gone to four-year colleges might be deciding to start at a two-year college, and the students who were planning to go to a two-year college might decide to hold off, to get a job and save up."

That can be a dangerous break, particularly for poor and first-generation college students.

In a 2005 study, Johns Hopkins University researchers found students who delayed entering college were less likely to eventually enroll in a four-year degree program, and more likely to get married or become a parent during college. Even after correcting for academic and demographic characteristics, researchers found students who delayed entering higher education by a year after graduating high school were 64 percent less likely to complete a degree in five years. Every additional month of delay cut a student's chances of completing college by 6.5 percent.

"Students who take a break with the best of intentions to come back can find it harder than they thought to leave the workforce, particularly if they start to gain traction in the workforce and feel some financial stability," Ms. Keup told me. "They can be fairly easily derailed."

There's a subtler gap here, too. According to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study published in this spring's edition of The Review of Higher Education, students who delay entering college are nearly six times as likely to come from the bottom 20 percent of the income ladder as from the top 20 percent. And these delayers are less likely to have taken rigorous science courses in high school, an indicator of their preparation for college.

Taking a "gap year" to volunteer or participate in special programs abroad—a common reason for delay among wealthier students—is less likely to change students' educational trajectory. Yet delaying for financial reasons, the main reason for low-income students' delayed enrollment, lowers a student's chances of eventually earning a degree.

All of that paints a complex picture of the results of NCES's special report on postsecondary education, which also found much-maligned for-profit private colleges had higher graduation rates for two-year degrees than did public or private nonprofit schools. NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley told me that there's some data to suggest that these schools are serving populations of students who are already off the traditional college trajectory: adults ages 35 and older, rather than 25 and younger; and students more interested in distance learning and focused certificate programs.

"They're definitely serving a different population," from the four-year degree programs, Mr. Buckley said.

Ms. Keup said colleges are also trying to give a smoother road to students who don't take the normal transition to college. More two- and four-year colleges are offering first-year seminars, mentoring, and special programs for students who come late or part-time, particularly those from groups at risk of not graduating, such as adult learners, veterans and first-generation college students. Even higher education research has started to devote more attention to breaking out different types of students, rather than simply looking at the broad groups of "traditional" and "nontraditional," she said.

"We're beginning to adjust to thinking about a wider range of incoming students," Ms. Keup said.

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