The College Access Myth Marches On

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the May 30 edition of NEA’s Education Insider, the union makes the following request: “As we approach the graduation season, we are asking NEA members to share stories of your students who would like to attend college but cannot because of the cost. Stories will be collected and used to bolster the case for action by policymakers.” (Hat tip to America’s last education labor reporter.)

Here we go again. A while back, Jay and I ran the numbers using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s NAEP Transcript Study and found that the number of graduating 12th graders whose academic transcripts and possession of basic skills made them eligible to apply to four-year colleges was very close to the number of students actually entering four-year colleges for the first time: 1.3 million. The difference between the two figures was only about 42,000. The rest of the 4 million or so college-entrance-aged persons consists of those who either 1) dropped out of high school, 2) didn’t take the academic coursework (four years of English, three years of math, etc.) that is generally necessary to attend a four-year college (we reviewed the entrance requirements at a selection of low-prestige four-year colleges to confirm this), or 3) did not possess even basic reading skills. In other words, the college-entrance-aged population consists almost entirely of people who either entered college or were not academically qualified to enter college. A subsequent study Jay did with Marcus Winters confirmed the finding.

Obviously there are some non-traditional-age students entering college, and some students can get into four-year colleges without possessing the qualifications that are generally necessary to do so. (For more discussion of the methodological issues, see you know where.) But even if we allow a (probably over-generous) 10% allowance for these and similar factors, that still leaves us with about 2.4 million people who can’t go to college because they’re not academically qualified, as compared with about 270,000 who are qualified to go to college but don’t go because of all other factors combined. Some of those 270,000 will be people who are qualified to go but don’t want to, or are prevented by some other, non-monetary factor. So the number who are qualified to go and would like to go and are kept out by no other barriers but money would be some subset of that 270,000.

In other words, if our goal is to increase college access, focusing on people who lack access because of money is an extremely inefficient way to do it. You’re going to find a lot more “low-hanging fruit” in a pool of 2.4 million than in a pool of less than 270,000 (by this over-generous estimate). And that’s even before you consider that improving the academic performance of the K-12 system would create many other benefits besides just increasing college access.

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