Interventions That Can Close the College-Attainment Gap

There are big benefits to increasing graduation rates. We need to find ways to collaborate on scalable approaches.
by | April 28, 2016

Pete Wheelan

Chief executive officer of InsideTrack

College graduates are more likely to be employed and pay taxes, less likely to require government services, have lower overall health-care expenditures and incarceration rates, do more volunteer work, participate more in civic and community organizations, and vote more often than people without college degrees. Moreover, disparities in educational attainment create disparities in opportunity, which can exacerbate racial, ethnic, religious and other tensions.

To close gaps in college attainment and improve the lives of those who are often stuck in a cycle of inequality and poverty, educational institutions, nonprofits and businesses must collaborate with state and local governments to introduce scalable interventions to make higher education more accessible and increase graduation rates.

The underlying causes of the significant and persistent disparities in academic performance and educational attainment among different groups of students in American higher education have provoked considerable controversy. Gender-based gaps are probably the least understood or agreed upon. While some data supports the idea that females outperform males due to biological or developmental differences, other data contradicts this.

The phenomenon of students from high-income backgrounds outperforming those from low-income backgrounds is better understood, but it involves a broad range of factors. Lower spending on early childhood development, underperforming schools in low-income neighborhoods, and less access to technology all contribute to the income-based achievement gap. A 2011 study showed that children in low-income families are about 40 percent behind their counterparts in the top 10 percent of wealthy families in terms of test scores. This gap was negligible 50 years ago, but it continues to grow at an alarming rate.

A generational, experience-based gap also overlaps the income gap. Generally, students whose parents attended college outperform first-generation students. For this group, psychosocial issues, such as a sense of belonging and a mindset of being "college-worthy," are important factors. Great strides have been made to close the achievement gaps for some populations, but little progress has been made among first-generation students, who comprise nearly one-fifth of the college populace.

Regardless of the underlying causes, research shows that achievement gaps can be narrowed, even if the efforts don't begin until the secondary or post-secondary level. For example, dropout-prevention and school-progression programs functioning as career academies, as well as post-secondary student-coaching programs, have seen quantifiable results among underrepresented populations. In its first year, for example, Indiana's 21st Century Scholars program increased retention rates to almost 15 percent over historical figures.

Of course, the best program in the world won't impact anyone if it's too expensive to implement. Solutions that can be scaled are more financially viable and sustainable, but governments and educators must first identify existing proven approaches.

In addition to career academies and coaching programs, examples of scalable approaches include the universal preschool program created in Oklahoma, which serves all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds, and the family-centered Chicago Child-Parent Centers. Studies have shown that children in these programs go on to enjoy higher high-school graduation rates and lower arrest rates for violent offenses than their peers. Additionally, K-12 reforms, such as board certification to calculate teacher effectiveness with respect to student achievement, can enhance the effectiveness of later post-secondary initiatives.

Investing in education through scalable interventions will expand job opportunities, boost America's competitiveness and support the kind of income mobility that's fundamental to a growing economy and a healthy society. This investment will also ensure a brighter future for those students that have been, regrettably, left behind by our education system.

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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.

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