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School Poverty—More Than Race—Affects Students' College-Going, Study Finds

High-poverty schools sent significantly fewer graduates to college in 2012 than higher-income schools, regardless of the schools' geographic location or racial makeup, according to a new study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Yet in the longterm, more students may be making it to college than previously realized.

Schools with more than half of their students in poverty had lower rates of enrollment and lower rates of persistence in two- or four-year colleges than did higher-income schools, but these high-poverty schools looked very similar to each other, in terms of college-going patterns, regardless of whether they were located in urban or rural areas, or whether 40 percent of their students were minorities. Only in higher-income schools was the racial makeup of schools associated with lower college attendance, and even there, it was smaller than the gap between rich and poor.

"What we see here is, there's a much bigger difference in college enrollment rates based on poverty level than race or geography," said Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the clearinghouse's research center. "The big divider here is low-income schools."

The results back up previous research findings that students in high-poverty schools are more likely to choose two-year colleges than four-year ones, though the clearinghouse study did not analyze how colleges' selectivity—or cost—played into students' choices.

More Context to Come

Shapiro was quick to acknowledge that, because the clearinghouse's data were taken only from 3,000 public high schools participating in the clearinghouse's StudentTracker program, the study sample does not represent American students overall. It gives a pretty detailed picture, though: More than 2.3 million students—about a quarter of all high school graduates in the 50 states and the District of Columbia between 2010 and 2012—were tracked from graduation well into their college careers. Moreover, the clearinghouse tracked students from college to college, in private and public institutions, and at schools both in and out of the state where they had graduated, providing an unprecedented look at students' persistence in college.

For example, students from low-income high schools did make up a little of the college-enrollment gap over the course of the first two years after high school. In the winter and spring semesters after high school graduation, an additional 4 percent to 6 percent of students from wealthier schools enrolled in college than had in the fall immediately after high school. For students from low-income schools, by contrast, including later enrollments boosted college-going rates by 6 percent to 7 percent. The pattern held in the second year after high school, and suggests that a significant majority of graduates from all schools eventually made it to college.

A few more caveats: The study counts all Census-labeled city, suburban, and town schools as "urban," which may paper over differences between suburban and inner-city schools. The study also does not break out college enrollment or persistence for students in individual racial or ethnic groups, nor does it differentiate chartered from district-run public schools, though the schools participating in the group's data program have received more detailed reports privately. Shapiro suggested that future reports will provide more detailed data, and will also look at trends over as much as eight years of student longitudinal data from some of the 6,000 schools now participating in the clearinghouse's data program.

For more on the reaction to this study, check out my colleague Caralee Adams over at College Bound later today.

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

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