Demographics, Locale Influential in College-Going Rates

Last Updated: October 29, 2014

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Students who graduate from high schools located in the South or in a rural community or small town are less likely to attend college than their peers in other settings. The same is true for students who graduate from a high school with higher rates of poverty or minority enrollment, regardless of the setting.

Financial concerns pose the biggest barrier for young graduates who do not take classes in post-secondary institutions. These students are also less likely to have a parent with education beyond high school.

Exposure to college-going peers, higher teacher expectations, and small high schools may help boost attendance.

Several reports released this month present information about recent high school graduates who attend—or don’t attend—college. Taken together the reports reveal quite a bit about the effect of high school setting on college-going rates. The information is especially relevant for low-income, minority, and rural young people and their schools.

College attendance by school type and location

Graduates of low-income, high-minority schools are much less likely to enroll in college in the fall after they finish high school than are their peers in high-income, low-minority schools, regardless of the school locale.

Those are some of the findings in the report, “High School Benchmarks 2014,” released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The report used data from the National Center for Education Statistics to track students’ post-secondary enrollment for several years after high school graduation. The data is examined according to school demographics and locale for regular public schools.

Low-income schools are defined as those in which more than 50% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. High-minority schools are those in which more than 40% of students are African-American or Hispanic. Schools are grouped as Low-Income/High-Minority, Low-Income/Low-Minority, High-Income/High-Minority, and High-Income/Low-Minority.

Within each demographic category schools are classified as Urban, Suburban, or Rural, according to their Locale Code. Rural schools include those located in both rural and small town settings.

The data revealed that in 2013 only about 50% of students who attended Low-Income/High-Minority schools were enrolled in a post-secondary institution in the fall after high school graduation. The rate was approximately the same for all locale codes. The same 50% rate held for graduates of Low-Income/Low-Minority schools located in Suburban and Rural settings. The college-going rate rose to 58% for graduates of Low-Income/Low-Minority Urban high schools.

College-going rates rose to a little over 60% for graduates of High-Income/High-Minority schools, with rates of 61%, 63%, and 60% for Urban, Suburban, and Rural schools respectively.

Locale had a larger effect on college-going rates of graduates who had attended High-Income/Low-Minority schools. In this case, 70% of Urban students, 73% of Suburban students, and 65% of Rural students enrolled in college.

The biggest gap in college-going rates were between graduates of Rural Low-Income/Low-Minority schools, where just 48% enrolled in college in the fall of 2013, and High-Income/Low-Minority Suburban schools, where 73% of students enrolled in college.

Characteristics of non-college enrollees

A separate report released by the Center for Public Education (CPE) offers the good news that 88% of high school graduates have attended college of some kind by the time they are 26 years old. However, the report, The Path Least Taken, focuses on the twelve percent of young high school graduates who do not enroll in college at all.

This group is ethnically and linguistically almost identical to their college-going peers. But they are more likely to be male (57%), and they are more likely to live in lower-income families. Two-thirds live in families with incomes in the bottom forty percent of income distribution. Nearly half (46% ) have parents whose highest level of education was high school or less. The most common reason they giving for not enrolling in college is finances.

Non-college enrollees are not equally distributed geographically. Forty percent of the nation’s young non-enrollees live in the South, while only 36% of college enrollees live in the region. Rural high school graduates are also less likely than their urban and suburban peers to attend college.

Non-college enrollees also differ from their peers while in high school: they took fewer rigorous academic course, earned lower grades, spent fewer hours on home work, and performed more poorly on math and reading assessments.

K–12 schools might help improve college-going rates by focusing academic supports on students who are lagging behind their peers before graduation.

CPE is an initiative of the National School Boards Association.

Mitigating factors

Several recent reports on college-going suggest factors that might improve college-going rates, especially for students who are at-risk of ending their education with high school graduation. Some of these factors have unique implications for policy related to rural students and schools.

Extracurricular activity. The strong association between participation in extracurricular activities and a wide range of positive effects on middle and high school students is well documented. An article in the journal, Social Science Research, finds that extracurricular participation with high achieving peers “has a non-trivial link to college enrollment, even after considering individual, peer, and school-level factors.” The article, “Extracurricular Associations and College Enrollment,” suggests that policies to encourage extracurricular participation could have “an important impact on a student’s later educational outcomes.”

The finding may have special relevance for policy with regard to rural schools. Research has consistently demonstrated that smaller schools have much higher rates of extracurricular participation among students than larger schools. Moreover, a larger percentage of students at all ability levels participate in smaller schools, and students participate in a wider range of activities, for example, both sports and academic clubs.

On the other hand, research indicates that rural students who live a long way from their school face significant time and transportation barriers to extracurricular participation. These barriers include long bus rides, lack of school-provided bus services for after school programs, and impositions on families, including extra gas and car-related expenses related to getting students to and from activities and extra constraints created by extra travel times and distances.

Teacher Expectations. Research has also documented correlation between teacher expectations of students and students’ academic outcomes. A paper posted this week by the Center for American Progress explores this relationship as it relates to students’ college attendance and success.

The paper, “The Power of the Pygmalion Effect,” is careful to note that a correlation between teacher expectations and student outcomes does not necessarily mean teachers are causing the outcome. Nevertheless, the relationship between teacher expectations and student college-going outcomes was strongly related. The study also found that teachers, on average, have “far lower expectations for students who might need high expectations and support the most.”

Small high schools

Research has consistently demonstrated that low-income students who attend smaller high schools have better academic outcomes in terms of achievement, graduation rates, and discipline issues than their peers in larger schools. In fact, graduation rates are so much better in smaller schools that they offset per-pupil “economy of scale” savings in larger schools. In other words, while per pupil costs are generally somewhat higher in smaller schools, per graduate costs are usually lower.

These savings are magnified after high school because graduates earn higher wages, are less likely to need social and economic assistance, and have lower rates of incarceration than non-graduates.

The research is strong and consistent and should be a major caution to policymakers against closing schools in rural and urban areas.

The report, “Headed to College,” explores the relationship between school size and college-going rates in New York City. Specifically, the report looks at outcomes for students who attend the city’s “small schools of choice.” These are public schools whose admission is determined by lottery.

The report examines outcomes for students who applied to the schools and were selected by lottery and those who applied but were not selected and attended large public schools instead. 

The difference in outcomes was striking. Smaller schools boosted college-going rates for black males by 11.3 percentage points, “a 36 percent increase relative to the enrollment rate of their control group counterparts.” Smaller schools boosted rates for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch by 9.6 percentage points and had positive effects on rates for Hispanic males and for Black and Hispanic females.

One cause of the higher college-going rates was the higher graduation rates of the smaller schools. The smaller schools had lower per graduate costs than larger schools in the city.

Read more:

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC):

NSCRC report, High School Benchmarks 2014:

Center for Public Education (CPE):

CPE Report, The Path Least Taken:

Extracurricular Associations and College Enrollment

The Power of the Pygmalion Effect

Headed to College

Read more from the October 2014
Rural Policy Matters.