When it comes to meeting “college readiness benchmarks” on the ACT, first-generation college students generally trail their peers who have more highly educated parents — a reality that makes it less likely for them to succeed in college, a new report released Wednesday shows.
The report adds to the volumes of research that has consistently shown that the level of parental education is one of two of the strongest determinants of academic success — the other being the highly correlated level of parental income — even as educators and policymakers seek to level the playing field by taking more college prep-centered approaches to education.
The report, titled “The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2014: First-Generation Students,” shows that over the past four years, the percentage of ACT-tested graduates who are first-generation students has almost doubled — from 10 to 18 percent.
For the graduating class of 2014, 57 percent — or more than 1.8 million students — took the ACT nationwide, and 341,000 of those test-takers were first-generation students.
“The upside of these findings is that, as more first-generation students take the ACT, their access and exposure to the college admissions process is increasing,” said Jim Larimore, ACT chief officer for the advancement of underserved learners.
“But our research also shows that students’ likelihood of enrolling in college right after high school increases based on the number of readiness benchmarks they meet,” Larimore said of the report, released jointly by ACT and the Council for Opportunity in Education, a nonprofit that advocates for TRIO programs, which are federally funded college readiness programs for students from low-income backgrounds.
ACT maintains that students who meet the benchmark scores on the ACT have a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better in credit-bearing first-year college courses, and a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher.
With regard to such, the report found that first-generation students were meeting the benchmarks at substantially lower rates than students from more highly educated families.
Specifically, the report found the following breakdowns between first-generation and all students who met the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks:
• English: 42 of first-generation students versus 64 percent of all students
• Reading: 24 versus 44 percent
• Mathematics: 22 versus 43 percent
• Science: 17 versus 37 percent
Maureen Hoyler, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education, said the findings of the report “confirm our understanding that first-generation student success requires the coordinated efforts of many people in the TRIO and college access community.”
“The services they offer are crucial to improving readiness for these students, as they are designed specifically to meet their unique needs as students of parents who have not earned postsecondary degrees,” Hoyler said.
However, a shortcoming of the report is that it does not indicate the degree to which first-generation students who got such services met the ACT college readiness benchmarks in relation to first-generation students who did not receive those services.
Be that as it may, the report does point to the role that high-school course-taking plays in improving college readiness. It reveals that first-generation students who take “Core or More,” that is, at least four years of English and three years of math, social studies and science, tended to do better than first-generation students who took “Less Than Core” courses in high school.
Specifically, “Core or More” students outperformed “Less Than Core” students on meeting the benchmarks, 44 to 22 percent in English; 25 to 14 percent in reading; 24 to 4 percent in math; and 19 to 8 percent in science.
With regard to such, the report recommends that states do more to not only provide a more rigorous high school core curriculum, but to clarify specific courses that students should take to boost their chances of college readiness.
“In the absence of such specific and rigorous high school graduation requirements, too many students are not taking either the right number or the right kinds of courses they need to be ready for college and career,” the report states. “All states, therefore, should specify the number and kinds of courses that students need to take to graduate academically ready for life after high school.”
Specifically, the report prescribes a minimum of:
• Four years of English
• Three years of mathematics, including rigorous courses in Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II
• Three years of science, including rigorous courses in Biology, Chemistry and Physics
• Three years of social studies
At the same time, the report calls attention to the importance of rigorous coursework in middle school, as well as investments in pre-school and early childhood education, in order to eliminate “gaps” that are said to exist as early as when students arrive in kindergarten.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.