A new study from Brookings analyzed the college enrollment rate of students across a variety of demographics: race, socioeconomic status (SES), and gender, and the results point to some troubling data: While academic preparation is important for higher enrollment rates among less financially advantaged students, students from a more privileged background are enrolling at a more successful rate regardless.
When accounting only for students’ socioeconomic status, students in the top quintile were reported more than three times as likely to enroll in a 4-year college than those in the bottom quintile, which suggests that students of a higher socioeconomic status—with no other controls accounted for—are inherently more likely to enroll in postsecondary school.
The report strongly suggests that these students are more successfully enrolling due to their more robust academic preparation. Specifically, the report found a correlation between students of higher socioeconomic statuses and their more competitive records in academic GPA, math exam scores, and Advanced Placement course-taking. Simply put, students with higher GPAs, higher scores, and a better track record of rigor happen to be those students of the highest SES quintile.
The second-best quintile is the one directly behind the highest quintile, and it continues in that order, which infers students are more academically prepared the higher up the chain of the socioeconomic ladder they find themselves. Consequently, socioeconomically advantaged students are more likely to enroll in 4-year institutions than students “below” them due to their academic preparation.
Fortunately, when controlling for GPA, the gap between the highest SES and lowest SES shrinks compared to when there were no controls involved. Specifically, when holding for GPA, 55% of the highest quintile enrolled in a 4-year college within 18 months compared to 30% of the lowest quintile, a 25-point gap. This is a far better statistic when looking at no controls, which shows a 51-point gap between the highest quintile (74%) and lowest quintile (23%). The numbers are even better when controlling for general academic preparation: an 18-point gap between the highest quintile (49%) and lowest quintile (31%).
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The report indicates that, even when controlling academic preparation, the gap could not close between socioeconomic statuses. Disparities between race, for example, suggested improvement. Holding no controls, Asian students were the most likely to enroll in 4-year colleges at 59%, whereas Black students were the least likely at 39%. However, when controlling academic preparation or GPA, Black people were the most likely to enroll at 59% while Asian people were the least likely to at 41%.
The report concluded that it wasn’t enough for policymakers and researchers to pay closer attention to disparities in academic preparation. Non-academic factors must be addressed as well, such as the cost of enrolling in college and a lack of information.
As the number of first-year college applications continues to grow, according to Common App data, the disparity between college applications of different socioeconomic statuses becomes more apparent: 56% of applicants resided in the top quintile of most affluent zip codes nationwide, whereas only 6% of applications came from the applicants who resided in the least affluent.