Participation in postsecondary education has positive benefits for individuals and society. Although researchers struggle to define and measure these benefits and policymakers debate who should be targeted and how much to spend, programs and practices designed to broaden access to postsecondary education typically receive strong support (Hossler, Schmit, and Vesper 1999; Tinto 1993).
Reflecting the value placed on postsecondary education, nearly all 1992 high school graduates (97 percent) reported in 12th grade that they expected to continue their education at some point, and 79 percent planned to enroll immediately after finishing high school (Berkner and Chavez 1997). Sixty-five percent of this cohort had carried out these plans by October 1992. Over the last decade, the percentage of high school completers who were enrolled in college the October after finishing high school has ranged between 60 and 67 percent, up from 49 percent in 1972 (NCES 2001-072, indicator 26).
College enrollment rates vary considerably with parents’ educational attainment. In 1999, 82 percent of students whose parents held a bachelor’s degree or higher enrolled in college immediately after finishing high school. The rates were much lower for those whose parents had completed high school but not college (54 percent) and even lower for those whose parents had less than a high school diploma (36 percent) (Indicator 26, NCES 2001-072, indicator 26). Because of the difference in enrollment rates, students whose parents did not go to college are one of the most frequently targeted groups (along with minorities and low-income students) for outreach programs designed to raise the level of student preparation and readiness for postsecondary work (Swail and Perna 2000).
This analysis summarizes the findings of a series of recent NCES studies about the experiences of high school graduates and postsecondary students whose parents did not attend college. These studies show that such students are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to postsecondary access—a disadvantage that persists even after controlling for other important factors such as educational expectations, academic preparation, support from parents and schools in planning and preparing for college, and family income. Also according to these studies, among those who overcome the barriers to access and enroll in postsecondary education, students whose parents did not attend college remain at a disadvantage with respect to staying enrolled and attaining a degree (referred to as persistence and attainment throughout this analysis), again controlling for other related factors. Rigorous high school coursetaking mitigates, but does not completely close, the gaps in access and persistence. For those who earn a bachelor’s degree, labor market outcomes in the short term (but not enrollment in graduate school) are similar regardless of parents’ education.