Comparing college freshmen today to those forty years ago, we would expect to see a very different group of students. On many measures, we do—but when it comes to income inequality, some things haven’t changed at all. Even as higher percentages of high school graduates from all walks of life are enrolling in college, the gap between income groups remains almost identical: in both 1975 and 2013, low-income high school graduates were more than 30 percent less likely to enroll in college than their high income peers. The disparities don’t end with student enrollment, either. A growing body of research indicates that low-income students face significantly higher barriers to pursuing their degree, thriving in college coursework, and graduating within four, or even six, years.
How can we ensure that our high schools are preparing low-income students to clear these hurdles?
How can we ensure that our high schools are preparing low-income students to clear these hurdles? A recent report from Achieve and Jobs for the Future (JFF) identifies one successful solution: expanding opportunities to earn college credits during high school. Extensive research demonstrates that students who successfully earn college credits during high school are more likely to enroll, succeed academically, and complete their degrees within four to six years. Given the success of this approach, the report calls for states to adopt accountability and reporting practices which track and reward college credits earned by high school students across their state.
Across the United States, the primary options states have utilized to help students obtain college credit during high school are Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) and dual-enrollment programs. AP and IB courses are college-level courses taught at high schools, and students earn college credits with passing scores on a standardized national exam. Dual-enrollment programs offer students the opportunity to take courses through accredited colleges or universities, earning college credit for their participation and success in the course. Although their models differ slightly, all three methods of earning credit have proven effective in helping students graduate from high school and succeed in college. Select findings highlighted in the report include:
- Participation in AP, IB and dual enrollment programs are associated with higher rates of college enrollment after high school.
- Participation in IB and dual enrollment programs is strongly associated with higher college GPA.
- Students who use AP exam scores to place into higher-level courses earn higher grades in those courses than students who progress to them through introductory college courses.
- Both IB and dual-enrollment students are more likely to graduate from college within six years than students who did not participate in either program. Although research is unclear on the benefit to four- to six- year graduation rates, AP students are more likely to complete college within three years than non-AP students.
There are several possible explanations as to why success in these programs is connected to later success as an undergraduate. First, college-level courses expose students to the culture and expectations of a postsecondary environment, easing the transition into the first year of college and allowing for earlier success. Second, earning college credit is thought to build momentum that propels students towards enrollment and later completion of a degree. These benefits are especially salient for low-income students, who are most likely to face barriers to enrollment, persistence, and graduation.
The majority of states do not currently collect sufficient student data to track the number of students who have access to, and are succeeding in, credit-earning courses.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to discern just how many of the students who might benefit the most from these opportunities have access to them. The majority of states do not currently collect sufficient student data to track the number of students who have access to, and are succeeding in, credit-earning courses. Where data is available, it shows a pattern of unequal access to credit-earning opportunities for low-income students. Achieve and JFF recommend that states collect and publish “a more nuanced picture” of how their high school students are accessing and succeeding in credit-granting courses. Collecting data disaggregated by demographic group would better equip states to evaluate their success in providing rigorous, college-preparatory courses to all students.
In addition to better data collection and analysis, the report calls for states to adopt accountability practices to reward high schools for providing college credit-earning opportunities. Current accountability and public reporting models rate and reward high schools for factors like SAT or ACT scores, graduation rates, and scores on state exams. Achieve and JFF strongly recommend that in addition to these measures, states should also reward schools that lead students to successfully earn college credit during high school. This, they argue, would encourage the expansion of credit-earning opportunities, especially to the students who could most benefit from them. The report also notes that schools should not be rewarded simply for offering credit-granting opportunities. Instead, they should be evaluated according to how many students succeed in these courses—whether that be through a credit-earning exam score or a B or higher in a college course.
It appears researchers are not the only ones to have seen the light on rewarding college credit opportunities. In recent years, there has been an upward trend in states rewarding schools based on measures around college credit opportunities: from 2010 to 2014, the number of states with accountability measures in this area jumped from two to 11. These 11 states have taken a key step forward in providing equal access to a college-preparatory education. If more states follow their lead, we may find that another forty years from now, our low-income college freshmen are no longer subject to the persistent inequalities in access to higher education that we see today.