Closing the College Gap

For most of the last century, the United States led the world in educational attainment and the economic and social mobility of its people. As our advantage has been slipping in recent decades, leaders from the President to philanthropists have set goals for boosting the percentage of Americans who complete some form of college, so more Americans are prepared for the rigors of the workplace and being engaged members of society.

As part of this discussion, we set out to understand the relationship between increasing high school graduation rates over the last 15 years, and the progress and challenge in postsecondary enrollment and attainment. What we found in analyzing new and existing data on the educational attainment of three cohorts of 25-34 year olds is both encouraging and alarming.

The 25-34 year olds of today who graduated from high school by or before 2008 and from postsecondary education in 2014 or earlier, have the highest rate of postsecondary attainment in the nation's history. While about one-third of this age cohort earned an associate degree or higher in the late 60s and early 70s, close to half of today's 25-34 year olds have done so. When we add in quality certificates, this is the first group with more than half attaining postsecondary degrees and certificates. Of course, that means that about half have no such credential at a time when most jobs now require one.

Between 2000 and 2014, when this group was finishing some form of college, more than one million additional degrees were earned, with a 77 percent and 51 percent increase in associate and bachelor's degrees, respectively. But disturbing attainment gaps plague this group, with upper income women driving many of these gains and outpacing men by 9 percentage points, and whites outpacing blacks by 15 points and Hispanics by 30 points. Hardly the equity attainment picture our country's creed envisions and our workplaces need to remain globally competitive.

Our second cohort who will be 25-34 years old by 2025 and are currently enrolled in postsecondary or finishing high school, are the children of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. They have experienced increasing high school graduation rates. Are more high school diplomas translating into gains in college? Yes, they are.

Blacks and Latinos and low-income students have driven gains in high school graduation rates over the last decade. In turn, Latino enrollment in postsecondary education more than doubled between 2000 and 2014 and black enrollment nearly doubled. When examining the strongest predictors of "college readiness" among the 25-34 year olds of 2025, such as GPAs and course-taking, such readiness among these recent high school graduates is as good as the current cohort of 25-34 year olds, even though this next group is far more diverse and less advantaged.

In fact, given the significant increase in high school graduation rates between 2008 and 2014, and the growing numbers of high school graduates immediately enrolling in postsecondary education, the nation would be on pace to meeting its college attainment goal for 2025 if existing rates of persistence are maintained or improved.

In examining longitudinal studies for the Class of 2013, we can now determine that about half of these high school grads immediately enroll in postsecondary and appear college ready based on course-taking and GPAs; about 5 percent are ready but don't immediately enroll; 22 percent are not ready and do not immediately enroll; and the remaining 22 percent enroll and exhibit warning signs that they will need more help to stay on track. For students entering four year colleges immediately after high school, college readiness is a strong norm, with 79 percent of such enrollees having a B or better GPA; 86 percent having 24 or more credits; and 78 percent completing a college core curriculum.

Our final cohort - the students in 1st to 10th grades today who will be 25-34 years old in 2035 - provide us limited data. But we can use what the other cohort data tell us to illuminate a path to higher gains. This age group will only experience similar gains if we address three great challenges: 1) improving the 800 low-performing high schools in which 50 percent of off-track black and Latino students are found; 2) providing more access to postsecondary institutions to students who live in impoverished and low educational attainment communities; and 3) redoubling efforts around college readiness and persistence for students with low GPAs.

Like the high school dropout challenge, closing the college completion gap will require a socially innovative plan that focuses public and private efforts on an evidence-based approach to college readiness, and supports individual students who face barriers to access and completion. Our economy and society depend on it.

John M. Bridgeland is former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and the author or co-author of more than a dozen reports on the high school dropout challenge. Robert Balfanz is Director, Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Nicole Anderson is Assistant Vice President of Social Innovation at AT&T and President of the AT&T Foundation. AT&T Aspire is AT&T's signature philanthropic initiative that drives innovation in education through a $350 million planned investment between 2008 and 2017. They just released the report, Closing the College Gap: A Roadmap to Postsecondary Readiness and Attainment, found at