Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
The Aspirations-Attainment Gap
In the final two decades of the twentieth century, a dramatic transformation occurred in high schools. Students' postsecondary aspirations changed, reflecting a new economic reality. Nationally, the share of tenth graders who stated that they hoped to earn a bachelor's degree or higher doubled, from 40 percent in 1980 to 80 percent in 2002.6 These rising aspirations were shared across racial and ethnic groups, with low-income students registering the greatest increases.
Not surprisingly, the share of high school graduates making an immediate transition to college has also been rising among all racial and ethnic groups. Figure 1 shows trends in the share of recent high school graduates who enroll in college in the fall, by family income and race and ethnicity. Although significant racial and ethnic and income gaps remain, all groups have seen dramatic increases in college enrollment after graduation. Recently, enrollment has grown more in four-year institutions than in two-year colleges. Between 2000 and 2005, enrollment in four-year institutions increased by 17.6 percentage points, while enrollment in two-year colleges grew 9 percentage points.7 These trends are projected to continue; the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that four-year college enrollment will increase by approximately 16 percent by 2015.8
Rising college enrollment, however, has not translated into substantial increases in the share of African American and Latino students who earn four-year college degrees. Table 1 shows national trends in the share of young adults aged twenty-five to twenty-nine who report having attended some college and having completed a bachelor's degree or higher. We can estimate four-year college completion rates among students who enrolled in a college by dividing the proportion of students with a bachelor's degree by the proportion with some college.
From 1980 to 2005, the share of young adults who report having attended some college increased substantially among all racial and ethnic groups. For example, the share of African American young adults who attended some college increased 18 percentage points, from 32.2 percent to 50.3 percent. However, the very low four-year college completion rate among African Americans means that despite that upward trend in college attendance, the proportion who completed bachelor's degrees rose by less than 6 percentage points. In 2005, only 17.8 percent of African American young adults had earned a bachelor's degree. Latino students lag in both college attendance and completion. In 2005, less than one-third of Latino young adults had attended some college. This proportion will most likely improve given the increase in college enrollment among more recent Latino high school graduates (see figure 1). At the same time, only 10.5 percent of Latino young adults had completed a bachelor's degree or higher in 2005, a rate only slightly higher than that of fifteen years earlier.
The bottom line is that closing the aspirations-attainment gap requires more than increasing the number of students who enroll in college. It ultimately requires improving students' likelihood of completing degrees, and this will require improving college completion rates among students who enroll. As more students go to college, we might expect completion rates to decline on the assumption that these newer college entrants are less academically prepared. College completion rates did fall somewhat during the 1990s, a decline that has been documented in John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner's rigorous analysis of Department of Education longitudinal data, which found that between the 1970s and mid-1990s, four-year college completion rates fell from 51.1 to 45.3 percent. The length of time it takes for students to complete a degree has also been rising.9 But, since the 1990s, completion rates have risen. Is the recent rise in completion rates a trend that will continue, and what can we extrapolate about what will happen to more recent high school graduating classes, where we observe increases in the share of students attending four-year colleges? As shown in the bottom section of table 1, we have observed stable and in some cases widening racial gaps in college enrollment and completion despite dramatic reductions in the gaps in educational aspirations by race and ethnicity and income.
Addressing the gap between rising aspirations and college completion is one of the most vexing problems in education today. In our article we focus on the implications for high school reform. Many factors in addition to high school qualifications affect whether students attend college and their chances of persisting to graduation, including rising costs of college and the declining real value of financial aid.10 But the central strategy to improve college access and performance must be to ensure that students leave high school with the academic skills, coursework, and qualifications they need.11 Simply, high school students who graduate with higher test scores, better grades, and more rigorous coursework are more likely to enroll in and graduate from four-year colleges. And, as we will document, each of these areas of high school qualifications is characterized by significant gaps by race and ethnicity and income. In the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, 62 percent of African Americans and 63 percent of Latinos who enrolled in college were placed into a developmental (that is, remedial) college course, compared with 36 percent of whites.12 Differences by socioeconomic status were equally dramatic. Fully 63 percent of students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile took a developmental course in college compared with only 25 percent of students in the highest quartile. Such statistics have led many observers to conclude that high schools have sold their students short and that it is time for them to raise the bar to ensure that their graduates are "college-ready."