Skip Navigation
small NCES header image
Illustration/Logo View Quarterly by  This Issue  |  Volume and Issue  |  Topics
Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 3, Issue 2, Topic: Go to Featured Topic: The Condition of Education
Invited Commentary: Research-Based Programs to Close Postsecondary Education Gaps
By: Vinetta C. Jones, Dean, School of Education, Howard University
This commentary represents the opinions of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Center for Education Statistics.

This year’s edition of The Condition of Education features an essay that combines and supplements information from several of the report’s education indicators to provide a more in-depth exploration of findings on educational opportunities for first-generation college students (those students whose parents did not attend college). I would like to provide a context for and highlight some of the implications of these findings for policymakers, parents, and schools and school districts needing to target limited resources in order for all students to have access to the academic preparation and support needed to close the gaps in college-going and completion rates between first-generation students and those whose parents have attended college.

In addition to The Condition of Education, I draw from the research and experience of the EQUITY 2000 program of the College Board and from a set of successful precollege math and science intervention programs that have been targeting first-generation students and underrepresented students of color for the past 30-plus years. The findings in the Condition essay are corroborated by the work of EQUITY 2000 and the precollege math/science intervention programs as well as by such earlier reports from the U.S. Department of Education as Mathematics Equals Opportunity (Riley 1997) and Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment (Adelman 1999), which is referenced in the essay.

Back to top

Mathematics Equals Opportunity reported that middle school and high school patterns of coursetaking (including algebra, geometry, and chemistry coursetaking) constituted a very powerful predictor of success in advanced high school courses, college-going and completion rates, lifetime career earnings, and number of times unemployed during one’s career. Coursetaking patterns were more important than background variables such as whether students attended public or private schools. Similarly, Adelman found that “… a solid academic core was more strongly correlated with a bachelor’s degree than high school test scores, grade point averages, or class rank.” He concluded that his study “… strongly bolsters what many school reform advocates have been saying for years: One of the best ways to close the attainment gap between minority and nonminority students is to ensure that all young people complete a solid academic curriculum in high school.” This academic curriculum is identified in The Condition of Education as the variable that most dramatically narrows the gaps in college-going and completion rates for first-generation students. Labeled “rigorous,” this curriculum includes at least 4 years each of English and math (including precalculus), 3 years each of science (including biology, chemistry, and physics) and social studies, and one honors or Advanced Placement (AP) course. It is important to note that completing the rigorous curriculum requires taking algebra in the eighth grade.

Back to top

Since the late 1960s, math/science precollege intervention programs have attempted to address the issues of equity and excellence in math and science by increasing the number of underrepresented students of color (most of whom are first-generation students) who graduate from high school with the preparation and interest to enroll in and graduate from 4-year colleges in the fields of math, science, engineering, and technology. In these programs, the expected coursetaking sequence is math through calculus; science through biology, chemistry, and physics; 4 years of college-prep English; 3 years of social studies; and 3 years of a foreign language. Students are encouraged to take AP courses. This course of study is almost identical to the “rigorous” high school curriculum that, according to The Condition of Education, eliminates the first-generation gap in persistence toward a college degree.

Obstacles to the achievement of underrepresented students have been identified by the most successful of the pre-college intervention programs, and program components have been designed to overcome them. The obstacles include inadequate math and science preparation; poor test-taking, reading, and study skills; low expectations on the part of teachers and other school-based adults as well the students themselves; guidance in school toward dead-end courses; few role models with whom the students can identify in math- and science-based fields; and school environments that allow peer pressure for underachievement to prevail over high academic goals. Another obstacle is unfocused parental support by parents who care about their children, but may be intimidated by the schools, do not understand the consequences of the decisions being made for their children, and do not know how to guide their coursetaking patterns, preparation for college, financial planning, and so on.

MESA (the Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement program) is the oldest and most successful of these programs. It started in Oakland, California, as an outreach program from the University of California at Berkeley incorporating strong partnerships with private industries needing engineers and other scientists. MESA’s outcomes with students who traditionally would not be expected to achieve are exemplary and provide hope for those who believe that programs should be held accountable for student outcomes. Ninety percent of MESA high school graduates attend college, and 60 percent of MESA college-goers major in math- or science-based fields. Ninety percent of California’s underrepresented engineering baccalaureate recipients are MESA students, MESA students comprise 89 percent of all underrepresented students who transfer as math-based majors to 4-year institutions from community colleges, and over 12 percent of the nation’s underrepresented engineering baccalaureate recipients are MESA students (Somerton et al. 1994).

Characteristics of the successful precollege intervention programs include a strong academic thrust, clear and measurable goals, ongoing professional development for staff, high expectations for students and staff, standards for student behavior and involvement, strong support from the district and school, collaboration with partners, substantive parental involvement (stressing the fact that parents do not have to be college graduates themselves to successfully support their children’s academic success, but only have to become informed about “what it takes”), role models and mentors who look like the students, and ongoing evaluation of the programs based on student-achievement outcomes.

Back to top

Building on the lessons learned from successful precollege intervention programs that target subsets of students, the EQUITY 2000 program of the College Board scaled up the effort to whole school districts. The goal was to close the gaps in college-going and completion rates between disadvantaged, often minority, students and their more advantaged peers. The research underlying this program, based on High School and Beyond data from the 1980s and published in Changing the Odds: Factors Increasing Access to College (Pelavin and Kane 1990), found that algebra and geometry act as gatekeepers blocking access to the path of rigorous academic coursework for most minority and disadvantaged students. The study found that when taking algebra and geometry by the 10th grade and having aspirations to go to college were held constant, the gap between these groups essentially disappeared. However, it was also found that only 17 percent of Hispanic students and 19 percent of African American students ever took algebra and geometry, because of tracking practices. This research became the basis for the launching of the highly successful districtwide education reform program, EQUITY 2000, that was piloted from 1990 to 1996 in 14 districts serving over 700 schools and 500,000 students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Beginning with the 6-year pilot, EQUITY 2000 has used math as a linchpin in opening access to the path of rigorous coursework across all disciplines for all students. Central to the program are changes in districtwide policies to require that all students enroll in algebra or higher by the 9th grade and geometry or higher by the 10th grade. The program operates in support of successfully eliminating dead-end tracks and building the capacity of teachers, schools, counselors, administrators, and parents to facilitate the success of all students on the path to reaching high standards.

The components of EQUITY 2000 are

  • districtwide policy changes, beginning with mathematics;
  • ongoing professional development focusing on content and pedagogy, as well as equity, attitudes, and expectations;
  • parental/family involvement that demystifies the school system and helps parents become effective advocates, planners, and supporters of their children’s education;
  • “safety nets” offering academic enrichment to help students reach the high standards (e.g., Saturday academies, study groups, tutors, mentors, summer scholars programs);
  • partnerships with community-based organizations, businesses, and higher education institutions; and
  • effective use of student enrollment and achievement data to drive decisions and monitor reforms.
Independent evaluators found that by the end of the 6-year pilot, policies were in place eliminating dead-end tracks, and more students were passing the gatekeeper courses of algebra and geometry than were even taking them before EQUITY 2000. Enrollments in such accelerated courses as AP increased substantially, especially among African American and Hispanic students, in some cases doubling and tripling. Further, “safety net” enrichment activities for students and ongoing professional development for teachers and counselors had become part of the core budget rather than marginal items.

The impact of EQUITY 2000 on districts and schools across the country has been extensive in bringing about major policy changes; focusing attention on the importance of ongoing professional development for all teachers, counselors, and administrators; providing students with a curriculum that reflects the standards of those in the discipline area (e.g., National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 2000); developing a new vision for guidance counselors that transforms them from gatekeepers into advocates for all students; and highlighting the power of expectations in student achievement.

Back to top

I will conclude with some important considerations for parents, policymakers, and school district educators, as well as for those of us from higher education, regarding closing the first-generation gaps in college-going and completion rates:

  • Policymakers and those in higher education must understand that preparing the next generation of teachers is at a crisis point. The education of these future teachers must focus on content, pedagogy, technology, diversity, narrowing the gap between theory and practice, and lifelong learning.
  • Higher education institutions and schools of education must see that teachers are prepared to effectively use computers, the Internet, and other relevant technology for instruction.
  • Policymakers can provide fellowships to higher education institutions with a track record for producing successful teachers who teach in urban and other settings having a large number of students who become the first generation to go to college.
  • Successful schools and school districts are focusing on students’ coursetaking and learning opportunities, teachers’ qualifications and training, and administrators’ ability to provide a safe and disciplined school environment.
  • Lessons from EQUITY 2000 shed light on the extreme importance of the expectations of teachers and counselors (in addition to the expectations of students and parents). At the eighth-grade level, students and parents from districts that are largely urban, minority, and low income had higher levels of expectations of entering and completing college than did the students’ math teachers and counselors. The counselors had the lowest expectations for these students.
  • Schools and colleges should reconsider the preservice and inservice education of counselors and their role in closing the gaps in college-going and completion rates between first-generation students and others. Presently, students whose parents did not go to college are not more likely to receive help from their schools in applying to colleges (i.e., completing college applications, preparing admissions essays, arranging days off to visit colleges) (Horn and Nuñez 2000).
  • Parents should know that among students who did not exceed the Core New Basics curriculum in high school, first-generation students persisted at a lower rate than students whose parents had bachelor’s degrees (55 vs. 69 percent) (National Center for Education Statistics 2001). Among those who took a rigorous high school curriculum, however, the difference (81 vs. 89 percent) was not statistically significant—that is, it was eliminated.
  • Parents who have not been to college tend to substantially overestimate the cost. These parents need to know about the many resources available to support their children’s college-going effort. If they do not have this information, parents might advise their children that they would not be able to afford college and thus discourage them from preparing themselves.
  • Parents increase their children’s opportunity for success by participating in various planning activities—such as attending programs on educational opportunities, seeking information on financial aid, and accompanying their children on school visits to decide about application or enrollment (Horn and Nuñez 2000).
  • If students take all the necessary steps leading to college enrollment, including preparing academically, taking college entrance examinations (SAT or ACT), applying to a 4-year institution, and being accepted for admission to at least one college, parents’ education ceases to be important in enrollment (Berkner and Chavez 1997).
  • Policymakers should consider that in 1995–96 47 percent of all beginning postsecondary students—34 percent of those at 4-year institutions—were first generation (Kojaku and Nuñez 1998).
Back to top

We cannot afford not to win this one. We owe it to the children, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the future of this nation to, in the words of Marian Wright Edelman, “Leave no child behind.” The urgency and depth of need for meeting this challenge was captured by Glenn T. Seaborg, chemistry Nobel Prize winner and member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which issued A Nation at Risk (1983), when he stated that each year’s class of dropouts costs the nation about $240 million in crime, welfare, health care, and services. Put another way, we spend nine dollars to provide services to dropouts for each dollar spent on education (Somerton et al. 1994).

The urgency of leaving no child behind is captured in another way in a passage from the writing of Toni Morrison:

Had she paints, or clay, or knew the
Discipline of dance, or strings; had she
Anything to engage her tremendous
Curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she
Might have exchanged the restlessness
And preoccupation with whim for any
Activity that provided her with all she
Yearned for. And like any artist with no
Art form, she became dangerous.

We have the opportunity and responsibility to lock arms and move forward together.

Back to top

Adelman, C. (1999). Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Berkner, L., and Chavez, L. (1997). Access to Postsecondary Education for the 1992 High School Graduates (NCES 98–105). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Horn, L., and Nuñez, A.M. (2000). Mapping the Road to College: First-Generation Students’ Math Track, Planning Strategies, and Context of Support (NCES 2000–153). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Kojaku, L., and Nuñez, A.M. (1998). Descriptive Summary of 1995–96 Beginning Postsecondary Students, With Profiles of Students Entering 2- and 4-Year Institutions (NCES 1999–030). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2001). The Condition of Education: 2001 (NCES 2001–072). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

Pelavin, S., and Kane, M. (1990). Changing the Odds: Factors Increasing Access to College. New York: The College Board.

Riley, R.W. (1997, October 20). Mathematics Equals Opportunity, white paper prepared for the U.S. Secretary of Education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Somerton, W.H., Smith, M., Finnell, P., and Fuller, T. (1994). The MESA Way: A Success Story of Nurturing Minorities for Math/Science-Based Careers. San Francisco: Caddo Gap Press.

back to top

Would you like to help us improve our products and website by taking a short survey?

YES, I would like to take the survey


No Thanks

The survey consists of a few short questions and takes less than one minute to complete.
National Center for Education Statistics -
U.S. Department of Education