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Why Do Academically Promising Students Not Choose College?

Students who enter high school with the the academic potential to attend a four-year college after graduation make very different choices about higher education based on the high school they attend, according to a new set of analyses by Harvard University's Strategic Data Project.

In a new analysis, "Do High School Graduates Enroll in Colleges
That Maximize Their Chances of Success?
" researchers from Harvard's Center on Education Policy Research linked high school records to college enrollment data for students at public schools in Albuquerque, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Fort Worth, Texas, Fulton and Gwinnett counties in Georgia, and Philadelphia. They found that, of students who showed academic potential;as judged by their cumulative high school GPAs and math and verbal SAT scores—18 percent enrolled in less-selective four-year colleges, two-year institutions or no higher education at all. Moreover, students who chose less-selective colleges were less likely to continue through to earn a diploma.

"These are people who are clearly poised for success and are not clearly moving into it," said Jon Fullerton CEPR's executive director. High-performing students could be choosing apprenticeships or vocational programs that don't require a four-year degree, he explained, but they could also have trouble navigating the college selection and financial aid processes in order to attend more four-year programs.

"This is particularly true of kids from lower economic backgrounds. Going to a college just because it's local or cheap may not be the best decision, because if you are more likely to drift away and drop out, that will have long-term economic consequences," Mr. Fullerton said.

In a separate analysis, "Do College Enrollment Rates Differ Across High Schools?", researchers found widely disparate college-going rates for different high schools within each district, from a 28-percentage-point spread in Fort Worth to an 89-percentage-point spread in Philadelphia.

As one would expect, schools with better academically prepared students entering from 8th grade (as judged by state standardized tests) sent more students, on average, on to college four years later. But a different picture emerged when researchers disaggregated students into quartiles based on their academic preparation in 8th grade.

Students who entered high school in the top 25 percent of the district academically had a 65 percent change of enrolling in a four-year college after high school, researchers found—but in Albuquerque, Charlotte, and Gwinnett County, more than 80 percent of top students enrolled in college later on. In fact, in Philadelphia, top students had a lower chance of enrolling in college than students in the lower half of academic performers in the Charlotte and Fulton County school districts. Within each district, lower-performing students in some schools had better chances to go on to a four-year college than top performers in other district schools.

"What we hope to show with this is how much information is hidden when you only look at averages," said Sarah C. Glover, executive director of the Strategic Data Project. We find there to be rather large shares of high-achieving students who are not enrolling in college. These are kids who graduate from high school successfully, achieve relatively high academics. That was the most surprising thing to us."

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