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Inequities in College Access and Success: Findings From New York City

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This week we are hearing from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools (@RANYCS). Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective on this research.

This post is by Kristin Black, IES-Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Program (IES-PIRT) Fellow at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.

High school graduation rates in NYC have increased dramatically over the last two decades. At the same time, expectations for students and schools have shifted, with a growing emphasis on preparing students for college and careers. This raises a number of questions about how improved graduation rates are playing out as NYC students progress into and through college.

How are rates of college access and success changing over time? And are we making progress in closing gaps for historically underrepresented groups of students?

These are some of the questions the Research Alliance for New York City Schools is currently addressing through its NYC Partnership for College Readiness and Success. This collaboration between the Research Alliance, the NYC Department of Education (NYC DOE), and the City University of New York (CUNY) is aimed at better understanding how to prepare and support students toward college success. The Partnership's K-20 dataset allows us to follow students from Kindergarten through college graduation and is the basis of the Research Alliance's New York City Goes to College series of analyses and reports. Through this work, we have also connected with a host of other college access organizations that have been kind enough to offer feedback in the early stages of our research (including Young Invincibles, which will be featured on Thursday's post).

In this blog post we preview some highlights from the new findings in our forthcoming report about college access and success in New York City. We also introduce a new four-part framework to describe the features of the college landscape: access, persistence, efficiency, and equity.

Access: There have been broad improvements in college access, driven largely by rising high school graduation rates. The proportion of 9th graders who eventually enroll in college has increased over time, mainly as a result of improved high school graduation rates. In general, college enrollment in New York has kept pace with rising graduation rates during our study period1. Moreover, the largest percent increases in enrollment have been among the most underserved populations — students in the poorest neighborhoods, underrepresented minorities, and young men. This is good news and suggests that college access work taking place in NYC high schools has been paying off.

Persistence: Helping students persist through the first year of college is a continuing challenge. Among enrollees, rates of one-year persistence actually dropped by about 3 percentage points over our study period. This may mean that students, overall, are still in a better position — with improved labor market opportunities, credits toward future college work, and knowledge about college that can be shared with others. But our findings underscore that the first year of college continues to be a critical period of reckoning for students as they work toward a degree.

Efficiency: Although four-year colleges remain the primary source of degrees, larger proportions of all students have enrolled in two-year colleges over time. And underrepresented groups have entered two-year colleges at higher rates than their counterparts. For the most recent cohort for whom we have complete data, fully two thirds of the degrees earned went to students who graduated high school on time and enrolled immediately in a four-year college. Yet increasing proportions of students have enrolled in two-year colleges since then. What these trends mean for degree attainment patterns of future cohorts remains to be seen. On the one hand, students who enroll in two-year colleges have historically been far less likely to earn a degree. On the other hand, several recent initiatives in NYC have focused specifically on improving the two-year pathway toward a college degree — including CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) and Guttman College. Although these changes may eventually produce substantial gains in two-year degree attainment, the highly disproportionate enrollment of underrepresented groups in two-year colleges presents real challenges to an equity agenda in the City.

Equity: Inequities associated with gender and neighborhood income have persisted, and there is some evidence that gaps based on race/ethnicity have actually grown over time2. Although all students have seen improvements in access and persistence over time, there have been very few changes in the magnitude of gaps. In fact, when we look at two-year college persistence, the gap between Asians and Latinos (the highest and lowest attaining groups) increased from 29 percentage points among students who started high school in 2003 to 31 percentage points among students who started high school in 2008.

These findings raise a number of questions we look forward to tackling in future research. The work has also sparked interest among policymakers and practitioners throughout the City — check back on Thursday for further reflections from the Northeast Director of Young Invincibles, Kevin Stump.

For more on our New York City Goes to College series, check out this first report in the series.

1 The first cohort of students included in our study began 9th grade in 2003 and were scheduled to graduate high school in 2007; the last cohort of students began 9th grade in 2008 and were scheduled to graduate high school in 2012.

2 In our report, we limit our investigation of disparities by race/ethnicity to those students living in neighborhoods with median incomes between $30,424 and $56,491, the central 50 percent of the neighborhood income distribution.

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