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Statistical Analysis Report:

Confronting the Odds: Students At Risk and the Pipeline to Higher Education

December 1997

(NCES 98-094) Ordering information


The purpose of this report is twofold. First, it aims to understand the critical junctures in the pipeline to college enrollment where at-risk high school graduates leave at substantially higher rates than their counterparts not at risk. Second, it identifies factors that contribute to at-risk students' successful navigation of the pipeline to college enrollment.

Students at risk were defined as 1992 high school graduates who had risk characteristics that increased their chances of dropping out of high school. These included being from a single parent household, having an older sibling who dropped out of high school, changing schools two or more times other than the normal progression (e.g., from elementary to middle school), having C's or lower grades between sixth and eighth grades, being from a low socioeconomic status (SES) family, or repeating an earlier grade.

  • About 58 percent of 1992 high school graduates had one or more risk factors; 32 per-cent had one risk factor, 16 percent had two, and 9 percent had three or more (table 1).
The pipeline analysis compares students at risk with their counterparts not at risk according to their progression through five steps to college enrollment. The five steps that make up the col-lege pipeline include: aspirations for a bachelor's degree (step 1), academic preparation for col-lege (step 2), taking entrance exams (step 3), applying to college (step 4), and enrolling (step 5). The proportion of students at each step are those who completed all the preceding steps.

Pipeline to College

  • Among 1992 high school graduates with no risk factors, 58 percent successfully navi-gated the pipeline to enrollment in a four-year college, compared with 30 percent of students at risk (figure 1).

  • At-risk students most differed from their counterparts not at risk in relation to their educational aspirations (step 1) and academic preparation (step 2). Just over half (56 percent) of at-risk students aspired to a bachelor's degree in the tenth grade, compared with four out of five students (81 percent) not at risk. About 44 percent of at-risk stu-dents progressed to step 2 (were at least minimally prepared academically to attend a four-year college), compared with 75 percent of students not at risk.

  • Even among students who completed step 2 (were academically prepared), at-risk stu-dents were much more likely not to complete step 3 (take an entrance exam) than stu-dents not at risk (9 percent versus 3 percent) (figure 2).

  • Among students who got as far as taking entrance exams, 13 percent of at-risk students did not apply to college (step 4), compared with 9 percent of those not at risk.

  • Among students who completed the pipeline through step 4 (applied to one or more four-year colleges), about 16 percent of at-risk students did not enroll (step 5), com-pared with 12 percent of students not at risk.

Comparisions Among At-Risk Students

At-risk students who progressed through the college pipeline and enrolled in a four-year college were compared with their at-risk peers who either enrolled in a subbaccalaureate degree institution or did not pursue further education. Comparisons were made in three areas: completion of math "gatekeeping" courses, obtaining school assistance in applying to college, and activities and behaviors associated with student, parent, and peer engagement in school activities. The analysis was limited to at-risk students who completed the first two steps of the pipeline (aspired to a bachelor's degree and were at least minimally prepared for admission to a four-year college).

Math Course Taking

  • Among at-risk students who aspired to a college degree and were academically pre-pared, about two-thirds (64 percent) of those who enrolled in a four-year college com-pleted at least one advanced math course (such as calculus), compared with about one-third who enrolled in other postsecondary education (36 percent) or who did not enroll at all (31 percent) (table 9). There was no measurable difference in the proportion of students who took advanced math courses between those enrolled in other postsecon-dary education and those who did not enroll.

School Assistance in Application Process

  • At-risk students who enrolled in a four-year college were more likely to report receiv-ing help from school personnel in filling out their application (56 percent) than either those who enrolled in other postsecondary education (44 percent) or those who had never enrolled (43 percent) (table 10).

  • At-risk students did not differ, however, with respect to taking a special course offered by the school to help them prepare for the college entrance exams relative to their post-secondary enrollment outcomes.

Student, Parent, and Peer Engagement

  • The rate at which students participated in two or more extracurricular activities distin-guished students who enrolled in a four-year college (48 percent) from those who had never enrolled in postsecondary education (34 percent) (table 11).

  • The frequency with which parents reported discussing school-related matters with their child distinguished students who enrolled in a four-year college from those who either enrolled in other postsecondary education or did not enroll (table 12). For example, four-year college enrollees' parents were less likely to report having few or no discus-sions (13 percent) than were students who enrolled in other postsecondary education (20 percent) or those who had never enrolled (24 percent).

  • The number of students' friends with plans to attend a four-year college was strongly associated with enrollment outcomes (table 13): students who enrolled in a four-year college were much more likely to report that all or most of their friends planned to at-tend (80 percent), compared with those who enrolled in other postsecondary education (60 percent) or who never enrolled (49 percent).

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National Center for Education Statistics -
U.S. Department of Education