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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Threats in the Frog Pond: A Multilevel Analysis of College Enrollment and Completion

  • Author(s): Whang Sayson, Hannah
  • Advisor(s): Eagan, Mark K.
  • McDonough, Patricia M.
  • et al.

Recently, several education initiatives have directed national attention to substantially increasing the country’s proportion of college educated individuals. However, considering that significant leaks in the education pipeline have endured despite longstanding attempts to promote access to higher education, meeting these current goals will require concerted efforts toward bridging gaps between college ambitions, enrollment, and completion. Moreover, considering the diversity of today’s college aspirants, these goals cannot be met without specific attention to lower socioeconomic status and underrepresented racial minority students, who are less likely to attend four-year institutions, attend selective institutions, or attain college degrees.

This study examines race and SES-related differences in four-year college enrollment and bachelor’s degree attainment. To that end, it considers students’ high school and college environments, which have been shown to influence educational outcomes beyond individual-level predictors alone. Additionally, it focuses on students’ transitions between these environments, with respect to institutions’ academic competitiveness, socioeconomic composition, and racial diversity. Guided by relative deprivation theory and stereotype threat theory, as well as by Nora’s Student/Institution Engagement Model and Berger and Milem’s College Impact Model, this study employed several multilevel analyses (HGLM, CCHGLM, CCHLM) of a national sample of 9,010 students followed from their sophomore year of high school over the course of 10 years. The unique longitudinal dataset drew from the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002/2012, NCES Common Core of Data and Private School Survey, IPEDS, and CIRP Freshman Survey.

Findings point to the role of high schools in determining whether and where students attend college. Schools’ college-going rates and socioeconomic and racial composition predict enrollment at a four-year college above and beyond student-level measures, and demonstrate consistent effects regardless of students’ own race, SES, or academic performance. Among students who begin higher education at a four-year college or university, few high school or college-level measures significantly predict bachelor’s degree attainment beyond student-level effects. The study concludes with recommendations for K-12 policy and practice regarding college preparation, family engagement, school structure, and partnerships with higher education. Implications for postsecondary education speak to considerations for financial aid, institutional practices regarding diversity, admissions policies, and connectedness to K-12 education.

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