Social class divides the futures of high school students

There is new research from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), written up by Susan Dynarsky at the New York Times Upshot. The striking finding is that poor children in the top quartile on high school math scores have a 41% chance of finishing a BA degree by their late twenties — the same chance as children from the second-lowest quartile in math scores who are high-socioeconomic status (SES). Poor children from the third-highest quartile in high school math have graduation about equal to the worst-scoring children form the richest group. Here’s the figure:


The headline on the figure is misleading, actually, since SES is not measured by wealth, but by a combination of parental education, occupation, and income. (Low here means the bottom quartile of SES, Middle is the 25th to 75th percentile, and High is 75th and up.)

One possible mechanism for the disparity in college completion rates is education expectations. Dynarsky mentions expectations measured in the sophomore year of high school, which was 2002 for this cohort. What she doesn’t mention is how much those expectations changed by senior year. Going to the NCES source for that data (here) I found this chart, which I annotated in red:


Between sophomore and senior year, the percentage expecting to finish a BA degree or more decreased and the percentage expecting to go to two-year college increased, across SES levels. But the change was much greater for lower SES students. So the gap in expecting to go to two-year college between high- and low-SES students grew from 6 to 17 percentage points; that is, from 9% versus 3% in the sophomore year to 22% versus 6% in the senior year. That’s a big crushing of expectations that happened in the formative years at the end of high school.

6 thoughts on “Social class divides the futures of high school students

  1. “That’s a big crushing of expectations that happened in the formative years at the end of high school.”

    Why do you say that? Why is not going to college a big crushing of expectations? At what point did we decide college should be a natural progression from school?

    Nevertheless, is the above (what you show in the figure) not a reasonable progression? As children take more advanced courses like algebra II and Precalc, they find their cognitive abilities hit a wall. They can choose to consider a BA in liberal arts, or they can choose a AA or vocational school. Is it not better to not take a big debt attending college and graduate with a vocational diploma in two years?

    I argue that, if anything, the higher SES students are doing wrong here. Except to enrich the universities, a college diploma does nothing for the career of most students. For both employees, and employers, it will be a better idea if high schools strengthen their graduation requirements, and colleges greatly reduce their output.


    1. I’m a little bit curious about what you mean by “a college diploma does nothing for the career of most students.” Education is a strong determinant of socioeconomic status as more jobs are requiring post-secondary degrees. So if as the chart shows, lower SES children are more likely to decrease their educational expectations by senior year, this could result in these students having trouble accessing higher status jobs, whereas students in higher SES groups who had 4-year college expectations and are more likely to go on to college may have an easier time. The issues is the INEQUALITY in who has what expectations and opportunities, not necessarily the idea that everyone must attend college.

      Also, these are looking at expectations, NOT aspirations, so it is definitely possible that the larger decrease in expectations of lower SES students results from the realization that they do not have access to resources needed to attend 4-year colleges, rather than a “choice” per se.


      1. Owing to the cost of college debt, and diminishing returns of many degrees (not ALL), a college degree has become less versatile in the last 10 years.

        In order to demonstrate what you, Susan Dynarsky, and Philip Cohen are claiming, what should be used is not aspiration or expectation; but readiness. I aspire to be a millionaire, but I cannot attain it, and I am aware of it. People in every SES strata know their grades+SAT V/M scores; Naviance is readily available to every student; at the beginning of the senior year, students adjust the colleges that they can reach realistically based on SAT V/M and school grades+ previous year Naviance results. You are making the assumption that the reduction between high, medium and low SES in the college ready population is because of SES; I argue that you have to give more credit to people in general; people use intelligence to make economic decisions. Choosing the idea of not going to college is not a life threatening decision as you make it out to be.

        The second point is that, both, SAT V+M scores and grades 9grades somewhat less) increase monotonically along the SES level. Expectations, SES and college readiness have all been studies in a number of theses:

        2. Sarah Clement ” The effect of SES on college readiness”
        3.Disentangling the effct of SAT scores, HS grades and SES upon college performance “”

        The results of all the studies are the same; SAT scores and to a lesser effect, SAT scores and HS GPA predict college performance, and are highly impacted by SES; people of all SES strata are aware of these results, and their decision making is rational and intelligent.


        1. I just wanted to add on more reference to support the difference in “what we want” and “what we can achieve”

          Click to access 2012-3.pdf

          I know ACT college readiness standards are stupid, but I just wish to add that there are multiple issues in college ready other than just SES; I do not wish to bring race into this discussion, but unfortunately it always colors all discussions in the US.


  2. Some of the effect is probably due to the math scores overpredicting actual ability in low-SES groups compared to high-SES groups. See here for an explanation of why that happens.


    1. Social science study. They came in with the idea that children from lower SES strata dropped out of college or did not graduate at higher levels than children from higher strata, and fitted data to support their conclusions. If they used reading or R+M, they probably did not get the results that they intended, even if they know fully well that verbal scores are a better indicator of cognitive ability.


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