Beyond Price, Other Barriers to College Loom

Chicago Public School students with college hopes often fail to meet benchmarks in the application process -- and enroll in less selective colleges than they could.
March 19, 2008

Only about a third of Chicago Public School students with aspirations to attain four-year degrees enroll in colleges matching their qualifications, with 62 percent of students attending colleges with selectivity levels “below the kinds of colleges they would have most likely been accepted to, given their level of qualifications,” according to a new study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

The report, “From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College,” tracks challenges to college access among Chicago Public School students -- who are largely low-income and first-generation college candidates -- that go beyond questions of inadequate academic qualifications or college affordability.

In applying for colleges, the report finds, "Acceptance is less of a barrier than might be expected." Only 8 percent of students with four-year college aspirations applied and were not accepted. But many more students missed benchmarks in the application and enrollment process: Only 41 percent of students who aspired to receive four-year degrees even completed the steps senior year needed to apply and enroll.

That meant that of graduates who said they wanted a four-year degree, only 59 percent applied for one -- and while 51 percent were accepted, only 41 percent ended up enrolled. The researchers found that the completion of a Free Application for Federal Student Aid application (or not) was a telling indicator of who actually shows up on four-year campuses. Among students accepted to a four-year college who filed the FAFSA -- a notoriously complex process -- 84 percent were enrolled in a four-year college that fall. Among those who did not complete the form, the proportion was 55 percent.

“If you want students to be working hard in high school, one of the best ways to motivate them is to say, ‘If you work hard, and get good grades, you can go to college,' ” said Jenny Nagaoka, a lead researcher on the study. “You don’t want to say, ‘You work hard, you can go to college,’ and students don’t go because they don’t figure out the application system.”

The report focuses largely on the relative lack of information and support available to the first-generation students (the so-called "social capital gap" that they face). Attendance at a high school with "a strong college-going climate," as characterized by the teachers, was “the single most consistent predictor of whether students took steps toward college enrollment," the report found. It also found that Latino students were least likely to plan to enroll in a four-year college, and least likely to apply. Even controlling for immigration status and academic qualifications, Latino students were 13 percentage points less likely to enroll in a four-year college than African-Americans.

“At least in Chicago, African-American students are more likely to be coming from very poor neighborhoods than Latino students. However, they’re more likely to have college-educated adults and professional adults in their community,” said Nagaoka. “It seems like that sort of thing can make a big difference.”

Latino students were also the most likely to “mismatch” when it comes to college choice, with 44 percent enrolling in colleges with selectivity levels "far below" those of colleges they probably could get into based on their academic qualifications. In contrast, the same was true of 28 percent of African-Americans.

"They believe college is college, that they can get a quality education anywhere if they’re motivated. Why would they go elsewhere, why would they pay more, why would they go through selectivity hurdles and hoops?” said Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research for Excelencia in Education. In August, the group, which is focused on Latinos and higher education, released a report finding that students who attend Hispanic-serving institutions, which tend to be public, less selective, and less expensive, considered cost, location and accessibility. Those who attended more selective institutions focused on financial aid, prestige and academic programs. In general, the Hispanic students did not recognize "qualitative differences between institutions."

“I think that we have some work to do to get students, especially Latino students, to understand, to be able to differentiate between institutions. I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job of that," Santiago said.

“They don’t really understand what qualifications get you,” Nagaoka added of the mismatch problem more generally. “Their college options are really broad. They don’t understand the differences between different types of colleges,” she said -- pointing out that four-year colleges’ high sticker prices can also be a deterrent.

Among the most qualified of the Chicago Public School System students, 37 percent either enrolled in a college with a much lower selectivity level than their qualifications would suggest or did not enroll at all -- about the same proportion that enrolled in very selective colleges (38 percent).

"When we examined match among [Chicago Public School] students, the dominant pattern of behavior for students who mismatch is not that they choose to attend a four-year college slightly below their match. Rather, many students mismatch by enrolling in two-year colleges or not enrolling in college at all," the report states.

(As for two-year colleges, the report recognizes their important role within higher education, but says that the qualitative data suggests that "enrolling in a two-year college is often something students fall back on when they encounter obstacles in the college search and application process, rather than a clearly defined plan." And while the report acknowledges that transferring from a two- to four-year college is a pathway to the bachelor's degree, “because this report seeks to understand how to provide students with the best roadmap to a four-year degree and research has shown that few students make the transition from two-year to four-year colleges, we do not regard starting in a two-year college as equivalent to starting in a four-year college.")

The Chicago Public Schools' Postsecondary Education and Student Development Department described the results as validating work they've already been doing -- and Nagaoka, of the research-oriented Consortium, likewise praised their progress as "responsive" and "remarkable." The two entities, both parties said, work in cooperation with one another.

A year ago, the system, which includes about 120 high schools and 110,000 high school students, instituted a system in cooperation with the Illinois Student Assistance Commission so it can track whether students have fully filled out their FAFSA -- on a weekly basis, before it's too late. They've hired 44 college coaches over the past 3.5 years or so, and, over the last six months, have created 64 new or refurbished College and Career Centers.

“In the end this is all about school culture and changing school culture and getting principals to establish expectations. The report talks about the importance of all the adults in the building being a part of the process. This can’t just be put on the back of the counselors, particularly when you have a case load of 360 students," said Greg Darnieder, director of the department. He said that some high schools and their leaders have mastered embracing "college" as their mission more than others.

"It’s a key point, but it’s not an easy, quick turnaround.”


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