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Creating pathways to college and career

What hidden triggers hinder students' progress in college and the workforce? NWEA's John Cronin fills us in.

8 min read



This post is sponsored by NWEA.

What factors drive—or impede—a student’s journey toward a college and career path? How can schools better guide students from low-income families toward academic and workforce success? SmartBrief spoke with John Cronin, vice president of education research at NWEA, to get answers to these questions. Here’s what he had to say.

What are the biggest obstacles keeping low-income students from college and career pathways?

Many low-income students have good academic records, but they nevertheless face a number of obstacles that middle- and high-income students may not encounter. Some are the first in their family to attend college, so they have no one with prior experience to help navigate them through the processes of meeting academic requirements, completing their application or filing for financial aid. For example, a student who wants to attend an elite college should typically enroll in Algebra I in eighth grade, so that they can take pre-calculus or calculus in high school. However, without guidance from a parent or educator, the student may not know this requirement and might miss out on the opportunity.

When low-income students talk about college completion, are they typically referring to four-year degrees? Or is does this also include two-year and certification degree programs?

The vast majority (over 85%) of middle school families (regardless of ethnicity and income) aspire for the student to complete a four-year degree, according to a 2004 United Negro College survey. We need to help these students understand where they are, academically, relative to that goal. This is especially important for students in late elementary and middle school. Students and their families should know whether they are getting the grades, taking the right college-preparatory courses, and performing on assessments at a level that indicates they are likely to be successful if they pursue college.

What are “hidden triggers”?

“Hidden triggers” are the factors that can boost a student’s opportunities for success but that may not be well known, particularly to students and families who may be several years away from making college choices. We have identified three.

The first focuses on preparing low-income students for careers that promise upward mobility. These careers are not always what one expects. For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Longitudinal Study, adults that went in to nursing generally earned higher incomes than their parents had earned. While these parents generally had incomes near the US median, their adult children in nursing earned incomes at the 70th percentile. Teaching, accounting, police work, firefighting and computer programming are other fields in which the earnings of adults in those fields significantly exceed the earnings of their parents. Truck driving, mechanics and repairmen are examples of careers that do not normally require a college degree but also are associated with upward mobility. Not all careers are upwardly mobile, however. Adults in sales, for example, typically earn less today than their parents earned and the same is true for adults who are administrative assistants.

Most students from low-income families are focused on the college degree as their ticket to the middle class. We want those students to be aware of the pathways that offer the most promise and the preparation that will be needed to get there.

The second hidden trigger is better understanding of the finances surrounding college. Purchasing a college education is now the largest or second largest purchase an individual is likely to make in their lifetime. One concern is that parents tend to focus on the tuition cost without considering other factors that are more important in determining the final cost. For example, families should look at the percentage of entering students at a college who complete a degree. Consider two southeastern public colleges that admit students with similar entrance exam scores. According to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, a low-income family would pay about $11,000 per year out-of-pocket to attend either school. At college A, 47% of the entering students complete a degree, while at college B only 27% complete a degree. That means a family choosing college B assumes a nearly three in four risk that their child will NOT complete a degree. For a low-income student attending two years without graduating that loss, approximately $22,000, is financially crippling.

A related problem is the tendency for low-income students to assume that private colleges are automatically unaffordable because of their higher tuition rates. A highly qualified low-income student is likely to receive enough scholarship assistance at many private universities to more than offset the difference between that school and a state college. More importantly, a selective private college is likely to have a much higher percentage of their students complete degrees than the local state college. In those circumstances the private college is a much better bargain.

The third trigger is preparing for college early. It’s much easier to help a fifth grade student with college aspirations catch up, because they have more time, than it is for a junior in high school. One of our goals at NWEA is to show younger students where they stand, in terms of mathematics and reading achievement, relative to the performance of students who are admitted to the colleges they might be interested in attending. Showing students where they stand academically, and then offering the family important information about their prospective colleges helps propel students on to college.

What types of college majors do low-income students typically choose? What career paths are they gravitating to?

The National Center for Education Statistics does not collect information on the degrees pursued by low-income students but they do report this data for minority students. In looking at majors that are associated with upwardly mobile careers, blacks more frequently pursue degrees in business and law enforcement than other ethnic groups. Asians more frequently choose engineering, and whites more frequently pursue degrees in education.

What can assessments tell us that our current college-admission metrics miss?

Our MAP assessment addresses two areas that are frequently missed by middle and high schools.

First, one of the biggest limitations of college admissions metrics is that students don’t know how they are likely to perform until they are juniors or seniors. They should start thinking about and preparing for college in late elementary and middle school. MAP measures student growth, allowing us to better project where students might be by the end of high school. We don’t do this kind of projection to tell students their fate. Projections are only useful when they offer the student the time and opportunity to improve their preparation so they can reach their college aspirations.

The second issue is that schools don’t always “discover” all the students who intend to attend college. When that’s the case, educators miss the opportunity to help students improve their preparation. For example, when you ask teachers to predict the likelihood that a student will drop out, they tend to be very accurate; in fact some teachers predict a student’s probability of dropping out about as well as a good mathematical model. However, if you ask a teacher to predict the likelihood that a student will attend college, he or she will likely under estimate the number of students who will attend college, particularly with minority students. Assessments and other achievement data can be very useful here because they can help educators find the college- bound students they might otherwise miss.

We recently released the College Explorer tool to address both of these issues and provide insight to students, parents, and educators. Using MAP data, the College Explorer tool helps students in the late elementary and middle school grades see how well their achievement compares to the colleges their interested in attending. This helps students begin thinking about and planning for college at an age when they still have time to change their outcomes. Marrying that data to information about colleges helps student and parents identify which colleges are good matches, fit their budgets and will drive them toward graduation.

John Cronin is the vice president of Education Research at NWEA. His recent work has focused on student achievement and the Common Core, teacher evaluation policy and the impact of accountability initiatives on schools and students. Cronin provides consultation related to testing to several organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education, the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators (COSA), and the New York State Council of School Superintendents. He has published articles on these issues in the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA) journal and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) journal; additionally, he’s been a featured blogger on Huffington Post. Cronin holds a Ph.D. in Educational Studies from Emory University.