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Back view of a row of young multi-ethnic students walking together in the park

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This is the time of year when we start to hear from competitive colleges about how good their application pools were and how stellar their entering freshman classes will be in the fall.

Colleges are boasting, as they did last year, about the qualities of their new classes. But when the final numbers are in for the year, in September, will it be the same (or worse) than last year, when community colleges and other institutions that serve large numbers of low-income and minority students had disappointing years?

Data being released today by the nonprofit group YouthTruth suggest that it could be a tough year. In a survey of 25,000 high school seniors, the group found significant gaps between those who want to go to college and those who think they will go. The gaps are particularly notable for male, Black and Latino students.

“What comes to light is a concerning pattern of mismatched aspirations and expectations that show how, for many students, navigating the pathway to ‘the college dream’ has become increasingly difficult,” the report says.

Community colleges could face the most difficult year. In the 2019 survey, before the pandemic, 25 percent of all students said they expected to enroll in a community college the next year. For the high school Class of 2023, only 20 percent said they expected to enroll at a community college.

The official day for applicants to let colleges know if they are accepting admissions offers is May 1, but most colleges ignore that date and are still accepting applicants. That may make this survey more valuable than incomplete reports from colleges on their fall enrollment expectations.

Aspirations and Expectations

“Three out of four seniors in the class of 2023 want to go to college, but there is a mismatch between students’ college aspirations and their expectations that they will actually enroll in college,” the report says. “This college aspiration-expectation mismatch is more acute for some groups of students than others.”

Among all students, 74 percent aspire to go to college, and 66 percent think they will go to college, a gap of eight percentage points.

Among American Indian and other Indigenous groups, 58 percent want to go to college, but only 44 percent believe they will, a gap of 14 points. Latino students have a nine-percentage-point gap, and Black students have an eight-percentage-point gap. For white students, the gap was only seven percentage points, and for Asian students, the gap was only five percentage points (90 percent said they wanted to go to college).

There are also gaps by gender.

Among female students, 83 percent say they want to go to college, and 77 percent said they think they will go. Among male students, only 68 percent want to go to college and 57 percent believe they will, a gap of 11 points compared to six for women. (Among nonbinary high school seniors, the gap was also six percentage points.)

Taken together, the statistics alarm the YouthTruth report writers.

“When we consider the class of 2023’s college-going aspirations by race, there are striking differences between the student groups that most want to pursue higher education and their classmates,” the report says. “A full 32 percentage points separates Asian or Asian Americans, the group most likely to say they want to go to college (90 percent), and those who are least likely to say they want to continue their education, American Indian/Alaska Native/Indigenous students (58 percent).”

The report also notes that this impact will be felt more at some colleges than others.

“While the percentage of seniors expecting to attend a four-year college has held steady at 46 percent over the last three years, the percentage of seniors expecting to attend a community college has dropped from 25 percent in 2019 to 20 percent in 2023 as Black students are increasingly under-represented on community college campuses,” the report says.

A recent op-ed in The 74Million by Karen A. Stout, executive director of Achieving the Dream, and Francesca I. Carpenter, director of equity initiatives at that group, noted that Black enrollment at community colleges has been a growing problem.

“From 2011 to 2019, Black enrollment declined at twice the rate (26 percent) of the overall decrease at two-year colleges (13 percent), a drop of almost 300,000 students. In 2020, Black enrollment plunged by another 100,000, a return to the same levels as 20 years ago,” they wrote.

Tough Times for Community Colleges

Between 2019 and 2023, high school seniors in three groups showed declines in the percentage who see themselves enrolling at a community college after graduation.

Among male students, the share seeing themselves at a community college fell from 23 percent to 18 percent. Among Black students, the number dropped from 25 percent to 17 percent. Among Latino students, the drop was from 34 to 27 percent.

“While the diminished community college expectation trends for all three of these groups raise serious concerns, they are particularly alarming for Black students who are increasingly underrepresented on America’s college campuses, and particularly at community colleges,” the report says.

The report concludes that “for all too many of America’s youth, the road to college remains obscured, blocked, or just plain closed. And, since 2019, successfully navigating the road to college has become even more challenging for many, including the groups spotlighted in this report. From college counselors and admissions officers to policymakers and philanthropic funders, the time is past due for all adults concerned with equity of educational opportunity to tune into the perceptions of students themselves and enlist young people as partners in constructing more clearly marked paths that are open to all who aspire to college.”

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