College Attendance among Low-Income Youth: Explaining Differences across Wisconsin High Schools
WCER Working Paper No. 2018-6
Noah Hirschl and Christian Michael Smith
April 2018, 19 pp.
Nationally and in Wisconsin, economically disadvantaged high school graduates attend college, especially baccalaureates colleges, at much lower rates than their more advantaged peers. Schools play an important role in helping economically disadvantaged students go to college. Indeed, in Massachusetts and Texas, schools vary more in their tendency to send students to college than in their tendency to improve students’ test scores (Jennings, Deming, Jencks, Lopuch, & Schueler, 2015). This considerable variation among schools suggests that specific high school characteristics benefit or harm students’ postsecondary outcomes. Identifying those characteristics is a step toward equalizing postsecondary outcomes.
We have attempted to identify such school characteristics in Wisconsin. In this report, we describe Wisconsin’s economic disparities by postsecondary outcomes, assess the magnitude of between-school variation in school effects on economically disadvantaged students’ baccalaureate college attendance, and show which school characteristics explain this variation.
Key findings in this report include:
- The most economically disadvantaged students, those who persistently qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch, are 35 percentage points less likely to attend a baccalaureate college (4-year) than students who never qualify. Even adjusting (or controlling) for differences among students in high school academic achievement, the most economically disadvantaged students are 12 percentage points less likely to attend.
- Wisconsin high schools vary substantially in the extent to which they facilitate baccalaureate college attendance among their economically disadvantaged students. With controls for student characteristics like eighth-grade test scores, an economically disadvantaged student attending one of the schools most likely to send economically disadvantaged students on to baccalaureate colleges is 20 percentage points more likely to attend a baccalaureate college than an economically disadvantaged student attending one of the schools least likely to do so.
- Suburban schools, schools in Milwaukee, and schools near a University of Wisconsin 4 year institution send a greater share of their economically disadvantaged students to baccalaureate colleges, holding constant student characteristics. An economically disadvantaged student who attends high school within five miles of a University of Wisconsin 4-year institution is about 5 percentage points more likely to attend a baccalaureate college than a student whose high school is 40 miles away.
- School organizational features such as student-personnel ratios, course offerings, and expenditures explain little of the between-school variation in economically disadvantaged students’ baccalaureate college attendance rates.
keywords: College attendance, low-income students, economic disparities, school variation