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Programs at Higher Education Institutions for Disadvantaged Precollege Students
NCES 96230
December 1995

Characteristics of the Students Served

Targeted Characteristics

One of the defining attributes of a precollegiate program is the characteristics of the students who are served. This study looked at what types of students the largest programs chose to target and the distribution of participating students; it also looked at a program characteristic that affects student participation -- the grade levels served -- and the distribution of students with respect to this program feature.

While this study was directed toward precollegiate programs for the disadvantaged, disadvantage could be defined in either educational or economic terms, and precollegiate programs could still give other student characteristics a high priority for targeting. For example, a program might be targeted toward minority students who are disadvantaged, with students' minority status listed as the top priority and their disadvantaged status as the second priority.24To provide a more comprehensive picture of the types of students targeted, the survey questionnaire provided a list of 15 characteristics and asked the respondents to rank the top 3 that were specifically targeted. By far, the student characteristic that was most often targeted, and the only characteristic that was one of the top three targeted characteristics for a majority of programs, was low income (70 percent; figure 4). Two other characteristics were among the top three targeted characteristics for a third or more of the programs: being the first generation in the family to attend college (49 percent), and belonging to a racial or ethnic minority (40 percent). Because many of the characteristics listed in figure 4 received relatively low rankings (eight were listed among the top three characteristics by fewer than 10 percent of the programs), one might be tempted to conclude that few student characteristics were targeted. However, institutions were only asked to indicate the top three characteristics targeted by their largest precollegiate program; since 87 percent of the respondents used all three available rankings, many also might have targeted other characteristics (statistics not shown in tables).

There again were variations depending on institutional characteristics (table 10). Programs at public institutions were much more likely than those at private institutions to target first-generation students among the top three (58 percent versus 35 percent), as were programs at large institutions compared with those at small or mid-sized institutions (65 percent versus 41 to 49 percent). By contrast, precollegiate programs at private institutions were more likely to highly target a specific subject area interest or strength (26 percent versus 10 percent).

Upward Bound programs had different priorities in targeting than other programs, as might be expected since a focus on low-income and first-generation students is a specific goal of Upward Bound. In fact, these characteristics were listed almost universally among Upward Bound programs but less often among the other largest programs (98 percent versus 58 percent for low-income students, and 95 percent versus 29 percent for first-generation students). Upward Bound programs were less likely than other programs to target some other student characteristics: racial/ethnic minorities (23 percent versus 48 percent), and subject area interests or strengths (4 percent versus 21 percent).

Demographic Characteristics of the Precollegiate Students

While a description of targeting is useful to describe precollegiate program emphases, it may not necessarily provide a good description of the students' characteristics overall.

Precollegiate programs may vary in the degree to which they are effective in their targeting of student characteristics. Also, two programs may target different characteristics, but if those characteristics are interrelated, the programs may end up with similar types of students. This study did not seek to obtain a full description of the students in terms of all of the characteristics that might be targeted, but it did ask for the percentages of precollegiate students who were from low-income families, who were female, and who fit various racial/ethnic categories. These percentages were multiplied by the total number of precollegiate students in the programs and summed across all institutions to produce national estimates of the characteristics of the students served.

Overall, 68 percent of all precollegiate students in the largest programs were from low-income families, and 59 percent were female (table 11). Upward Bound programs, perhaps reflecting their special focus, had a higher proportion of low-income students than other programs (83 percent versus 67 percent). Also, programs in the Central and Southeast regions had a higher proportion of low-income participants than those in the West (76 percent versus 59 percent).

When delineated by racial group, 39 percent of students served across all precollegiate programs were black, while 29 percent were Hispanic and 24 percent were white (table 12). Blacks formed a larger proportion of participants in private institutions than in public institutions (59 percent versus 36 percent) and in the Southeast (65 percent) than in the West (19 percent). By contrast, programs in the West had a higher proportion of Hispanic participants than those in any other region (53 percent versus 7 to 21 percent). Upward Bound programs had a higher proportion of blacks than other programs (49 percent versus 38 percent) and a lower proportion of Hispanics (13 percent versus 31 percent).

The demographic characteristics of students in the precollegiate programs were different from that of the general population of students in higher education. The students were more likely to be black (39 percent versus 23 percent) or to be Hispanic (29 percent versus 10 percent).25 There was little difference, however, in the percentage who were female (59 percent versus 55 percent).

The Grade Level at Which Students Usually Enter Precollegiate Programs

Just as precollegiate programs target certain student characteristics (such as low-income or first-generation students), they also target certain grade levels. One program might serve only elementary students, another might serve only high school seniors, and another might serve a broad range of grade levels. The choice of which grade levels to serve affects the structure of precollegiate programs. A program will need different resources and skills for serving elementary school students than for serving high school students, and it may need a wider range of resources and skills if a broad mix of grade levels is served. Also, the greater the number of years a student participates, the greater the cost is likely to be per student. Finally, the ability to influence students conceivably might vary depending on the grade level served. If the programs start at an early grade, there may be a greater ability to prevent disadvantaged students from falling behind their peers, the students may be more open to influence, and there may be a chance to prevent students from dropping out of school. On the other hand, it might be harder to motivate students if college seems a more distant goal.

To provide information about the typical entry age of a program, institutions were asked when students usually enter the largest precollegiate program.26 The remainder of this section discusses precollegiate programs from this perspective. In the succeeding section precollegiate programs are also examined with respect to the total range of grade levels served. This provides a better measure of the diversity that precollegiate programs encounter; it differs from the discussion in this section by looking at when students leave the program and by using the earliest grade for which there are participants, rather than when students usually enter.

Most commonly, institutions reported that students usually entered the program in their freshman or sophomore years of senior high school (44 percent; figure 5). The remaining institutions said students usually started the programs in middle or junior high school (22 percent), the junior or senior year in high school (15 percent), as high school graduates (13 percent), and in elementary school (6 percent).

Some of the differences in the starting times were related to the characteristics of the higher education institutions (table 13). Programs at 4-year institutions were more likely than those at 2- year institutions to have precollegiate students usually start in the freshman/sophomore years (51 percent versus 30 percent), while the entry times for programs at 2-year institutions were more spread out among junior and senior high school grades. Programs in the Northeast were more likely than those in the Central and Southeast regions to have programs for high school graduates (31 percent versus 1 to 4 percent), and programs at large institutions were more likely than those at small institutions to have programs usually starting in the freshman/sophomore years of high school.

While there were some differences based on institutional characteristics, there were some even larger differences based on characteristics of the programs. One such difference was between Upward Bound and other programs: Upward Bound programs were much more likely than other programs to have students usually starting in the freshman or sophomore years (97 percent versus 20 percent), while other programs often started either earlier (40 percent) or later (39 percent). Another difference between programs was related to the primary goal of each program -- a difference that is logical since some goals might require earlier intervention than others. The largest precollegiate programs were much more likely to start at least by the sophomore year in high school (or earlier) if the top goal was high school completion (86 percent) or college attendance (84 percent) than if it was increasing general academic skills (62 percent) or college completion (54 percent; figure 6).27 Furthermore, if the top program goal was high school completion, then half (52 percent) of the programs usually had students start before high school, compared with one-fourth if the goal was increasing general academic skills (25 percent) or college attendance (22 percent), and 3 percent if the top goal was college completion.

The Grade Levels Served by the Precollegiate Programs

A focus on when students usually enter a precollegiate program, though useful in providing an initial picture of the programs, understates the great variation in grade levels that programs serve. Programs may admit some students before they reach the usual grade level, and programs vary in how long students stay in them. Some programs include a full grade span from elementary school through high school, while others deal with only one or two grade levels (e.g., a program might promote mathematics skills in junior high school students). This section examines the grade ranges served by the largest precollegiate programs from two perspectives: in terms of the diversity within each individual program, and summing across all programs, in terms of the overall distribution of students.

Figure 7 provides an overview of the grade ranges covered by the individual programs, and clearly shows there were some tremendous differences in those ranges. A small percentage of programs had a very extended grade range (e.g., 5 percent had both students in elementary school and students who were juniors or seniors in high school), while others dealt with only one or two grades (8 percent had only high school juniors and/or seniors and 12 percent had only high school graduates).28 However, the general orientation of the programs was toward the 4 years of high school. By far the most common practice was to make the freshman/sophomore level in high school the earliest grade level served (43 percent); among these programs, most (36 percent of all programs) also ended their involvement with juniors or seniors in high school. Or, to summarize the data in a different way, almost half (46 percent) of the programs were limited to the high school years (either freshmen/sophomores only, juniors/seniors only, or both), and most of the remaining programs (36 percent of the total) included some or all of the high school years in combination with grades outside of high school.

One cannot directly extrapolate from these statistics on programs to statistics on the overall distribution of students. However, given the programmatic emphasis on the high school years, it should not be surprising that the majority of precollegiate students were either freshmen or sophomores in high school (30 percent) or juniors or seniors (34 percent; table 14).29 This was especially true of Upward Bound programs, for which 98 percent of all students were in high school, but was true as well for other programs, for which 60 percent of the precollegiate students were in high school.


24 The study required that a program target the disadvantaged in order to be included in the survey. However, it did not require that the disadvantaged be the top priority in targeting.

25 Digest of Education Statistics 1994, op. cit., 207-208. It is difficult to compare the students in terms of their family income because different precollegiate programs may have defined low income in different ways.

26 For programs that operated only during the summer, institutions were asked to use the grade level completed just before participating in the summer program, except that high school graduates were treated as a separate group rather than being combined with high school seniors.

27 Two goals, college recruitment and promoting interest/strength in a particular subject area, are not included in the figure because there were too few institutions naming these goals as their top goal to produce reliable statistics.

28 Additional information on the estimates in figure 7 is presented in table 24.

29 Note that the distribution of students is somewhat different than might be expected from the stated policies of the programs. Thus, while figure 7 shows that 12 percent of the programs served only high school graduates, and that another 12 percent of programs served high school graduates in combination with other grade levels, the total percentage of precollegiate students who were high school graduates was only 5 percent. This difference in the distributions occurred because the programs that served high school graduates tended to be small, while the programs serving elementary and middle/junior high students were disproportionately large.

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