Press Release

Gains in College Readiness and Enrollments Propel Nation Towards its Postsecondary Goals, But Next Wave of Challenges Threaten Future Progress

Study looks closely at pipeline from high school to postsecondary education completion for three cohorts of young adults

Washington, D.C. (December 8, 2016) – Today, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University released a new report, Closing the College Gap: A Roadmap to Postsecondary Readiness and Attainment, in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education and sponsored by AT&T and Lumina Foundation as part of the GradNation campaign. 

The report analyzes new longitudinal data to link the progress made in raising high school graduation rates to what is known about college readiness, access and persistence; the best indicators of a students’ postsecondary success; and the necessary and complementary roles that both the K-12 and higher education systems must play to raise educational attainments and close opportunity gaps.

The national high school graduation rate reached an all-time high of 83.2 percent in 2015, meaning that since 2001, two million more students graduated rather than dropping out. However, there’s more work to be done. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require some level of postsecondary education. GradNation is a nationwide effort to boost on-time high school graduation rates to 90 percent by the Class of 2020 and increase college enrollment and completion. 

“We’re seeing improvements in high school graduation rates translating into significant gains in postsecondary education, leading to the first cohort of young adults in the past 50 years that will experience both rising educational attainments for all students and the closing of opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income students. However, too many students still face serious obstacles that threaten equal access to a quality education and preparation for the demands of the modern workforce. Addressing this college gap is critical given that the vast majority of jobs now require at least some postsecondary education,” said John Bridgeland, co-founder and co-CEO, Civic Enterprises.

“There has been a lot of heat, but not much light on the connection between gains in high school graduation rates to college success,” said Robert Balfanz, research scientist and co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “Our analysis shows the nation is making significant progress in increasing the number of students, including low-income students and students of color, who are graduating from high school college ready and then immediately enrolling in postsecondary institutions, but there remain worrisome barriers to the next generation of students continuing to see improvements.”

According to the research, while for the first time in our nation’s history half of young adults are obtaining a postsecondary credential and a greater number and more diverse group of students are now graduating from high school college-ready than ever before, significant college attainment gaps persist, particularly for students who are low-income, male, Black, and/or Latino.

“High school graduation and access to high quality postsecondary education, regardless of race, income or zip code, is only becoming more important. Students who graduate high school and continue their education gain the critical skills they need to hit the ground running on day one in the workplace,” said Nicole Anderson, assistant vice president, social innovation, AT&T Services, Inc. and president of the AT&T Foundation.  “The business community’s and country’s stake in ensuring students are prepared for tomorrow’s workforce has never been higher.”

Closing the College Gap used multiple data sets to examine three successive cohorts of young adults whose educational attainment at 25-34 years of age can be measured today or projected in the future. The data analyzed included nationally representative longitudinal survey data sets that allowed researchers to compare student performance in high school with their college enrollment and persistence over time, as well as recent and historical census data. The research provided new insights on the pipeline from high school to postsecondary education, and the way forward to boost college readiness, access, and persistence in the future. Key findings are highlighted below. 

Postsecondary Attainment Across Three Cohorts of Young Adults

The current cohort of 25-34-year-olds

(Present Day)

  • This cohort has the highest rate of postsecondary attainment in the nation’s history and considerably higher levels than earlier generations. In the 1960s and 70s just one-third of 25- to 34-year olds earned at least an Associate’s degree, but close to half of today’s 25- to 34-year-olds do so.
  • After adding in high quality certificates, this is the first cohort of adults in which more than half have postsecondary degrees.
  • Despite the progress, significant postsecondary attainment gaps persist. Women outpace men by 9 percentage points in attaining an Associate degree or higher. The White-Black attainment gap for both Associate and Bachelor’s degrees stands at 15 percentage points. The White-Latino attainment gap remained steady and large for both degrees at 30 percentage points.
  • Between 2000-2014, the nation witnessed a 77 percent increase in Associate degrees and a 51 percent increase in Bachelor’s degrees – an increase of more than one million. Women, particularly those from upper-income households, drove much of the increase in postsecondary degree attainment. Students of color and low-income students have seen their postsecondary attainment rates rise, but not as rapidly. As a result, the 25 to 34 year olds of 2015 saw their educational attainments rise, but opportunity gaps widen.

The cohort that will be 25-34-year-olds in 2025:

(Today’s high school upperclassmen and college students)

  • The 25-34 year olds of 2025 attended elementary and secondary school during the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They experienced substantial gains in high school graduation rates and college enrollments driven primarily driven by gains among low-income students, African American and Latino students.
  • This cohort compared to the 25-34 years of 2015, witnessed nearly a 10-percentage point increase in the percent of students who graduated high school on time and then immediately enrolled in college, the fall after high school graduation.
  • College readiness rates, examined through multiple measures, stayed about the same for this cohort compared to the 25-34 years olds of 2015, but the graduating high school classes for the 25-34 year olds of 2025 were larger, much more diverse, and less advantaged. As a result, the 25-34 year olds of 2025, saw significant increases in the number of students and the number of low-income and students of color graduating from high school college ready.
  • As a result, the 25-34 year olds of 2025, the children of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, are on track to be the first cohort of young adults in the past 50 years that will experience both rising educational attainments for all students and the closing of opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income students.
  • White students continue to enroll in institutions of higher learning at high rates and still represent the majority of college students in the United States. However, the percentage of all students enrolling in postsecondary who are White declined from 69.8 percent in 2000 to 57.2 percent in 2014, due to changing demographics in the country. Students of color have been the driving force behind the uptick in postsecondary enrollment.
  • Latino student enrollment in postsecondary institutions more than doubled between 2000 and 2014. The upward trend is similar for Black and Asian/Pacific Islander students as well.
  • Low-income student enrollment in postsecondary education immediately after high school has increased from 50 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2014.
  • Recent research on “education deserts” shows that students of color - especially Latino students - and students who live in areas of lower educational attainment have fewer postsecondary options, and in particular less access to four-year degree granting institutions. As a result, future gains in educational attainment among students of color in the next cohort of 25- to 34-year-olds may be limited.

The cohort of young adults that will be 25-34-years-old in 2035:

(Today’s 1st through 10th graders)

  • Without some significant actions along the postsecondary pipeline, the third cohort examined, who are today’s 1st through 10th graders will not replicate the progress of the prior cohorts. To keep educational attainments rising and opportunity gaps closing, solutions are needed for the one-third of students for whom the current education system is not working. These are the students who are currently not graduating from high school on-time or are graduating from high school but not immediately enrolling in postsecondary institutions and do not appear ready to do so.  
  • This cohort has the most to lose because by 2020, the majority of jobs will require some postsecondary credential or degree. This cohort of students will also be comprised of a majority of students who are students of color and low-income students. The opportunity is now to prepare them for college and career success, or the progress of the preceding cohorts will stop.
  • To ensure postsecondary attainment rates continue to rise and opportunity gaps narrow, the nation will need to solve some big challenges, including: 1) Working to improve results in the 800 to 1,000 low-graduation-rate high schools throughout the country; 2) Providing greater postsecondary access in “education deserts” and low education attainment communities; and 3) Redoubling efforts for college attainment for students with low GPAs.

Reframing College Readiness

The report works to develop a road map to postsecondary success for all students, arguing that a key to progress is taking a hard look at how college readiness is defined.

  • While standardized test scores largely drive the current conversation on readiness, the data overwhelming indicates that the best predictor of college success is a student’s high school GPA, combined with a college ready sequence of high school courses.
  • More than 76 percent of students with an A average in high school and 50 percent of B average students earn a bachelor’s degree within 10 years, compared to roughly 27 percent of C average students, 12 percent of D average students, and three percent of F average students.
  • Students with a 3.5 GPA or higher (A average) in high school were 13 times more likely to have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher than to have earned an Associate degree.
  • Similarly, five times as many students with a B average (3.0 to 3.49 GPA) earned a Bachelor’s degree than an Associate degree.
  • High GPAs transcend racial, ethnic, and income differences.
  • With the exception of Native American students, 90 percent or more of students of every other racial/ethnic background, income level or gender, with an A average enrolled in a two-year or four-year institution of higher education.
  • More than 80 percent of students of all races and ethnicities earning a B average and 70 percent or more of students from all income levels enrolled in postsecondary classes.
  • The K-12 and Higher Education systems have joint responsibility and need to work collaboratively to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed in postsecondary schooling.
  • Low-income and first-generation students with strong GPA’s, college ready course sequences and cognitive skills have lower persistence rates in postsecondary than more advantaged students.
  • In an era when all students need access to postsecondary degrees and certificates postsecondary institutions will need to find ways to enable students who graduate high school with a C average to receive the supports they need to persist to postsecondary degree or credential attainment. They can not organize themselves to only teach highly prepared students.

Challenges to be Addressed to Ensure Equitable Attainment for All

The report also lays out challenges the nation must focus on in order to use educational advancement as a means of upward mobility for all. Some of the factors needed to be addressed include: 1) continuing the push of increasing high school graduation rates, in particular for low-income students, students of color, students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and homeless students; 2) improving readiness among those who graduate from high school but are not well-prepared for postsecondary education; 3) ensuring greater access to a range of postsecondary options for underserved and poorly matched groups; and 4) improving persistence rates among diverse student populations once they are enrolled, among others.   

“The United States has made such progress raising high school graduation rates and closing opportunity gaps,” said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO, Lumina Foundation. “Simultaneously, we must continue the push to make postsecondary education a national priority and a genuine possibility for all students, in particular students of color, families from low-income communities and first-generation students. Equitable attainment and completion is the best way to ensure generations of successful, contributing adults.”

Authors & Sponsors. Closing the College Gap: A Roadmap to Postsecondary Readiness and Attainment is co-authored by Jennifer DePaoli and John Bridgeland of Civic Enterprises, and Robert Balfanz and his team at the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. The report is presented by lead sponsor AT&T, with supporting sponsorship from the Lumina Foundation.

Full report. To access the full report and other resources, visit: www.GradNation.org/CollegeGap.

# # #

Civic Enterprises is a public policy and strategy firm that helps corporations, nonprofits, foundations, universities and governments develop and spearhead innovative public policies to strengthen our communities and country. Created to enlist the private, public and nonprofit sectors to help address our nation’s toughest problems, Civic Enterprises fashions new initiatives and strategies that achieve measurable results in the fields of education, civic engagement, economic mobility, and many other domestic policy issues. www.civicenterprises.net

The Everyone Graduates Center at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University seeks to identify the barriers to high school graduation, develop strategic solutions to overcoming these barriers and build local capacity to implement and sustain the solutions so that all students graduate prepared for adult success. www.every1graduates.org

GradNation is a national campaign of individuals, organizations and communities focused on raising the national on-time high school graduation rate to 90 percent by the Class of 2020 and increasing college enrollment and completion.  The campaign is led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and the Alliance for Excellent Education.   www.GradNation.org

MEDIA CONTACTS: