The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 15, 1999
Mar. 15, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 26


Talent Loss: Low-Income Achievers

By Leslie Rice
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Right now, there are high school seniors all over the United States receiving acceptance letters from colleges of their choice and deciding where to enroll in the fall.

There also are approximately 21,000 seniors whose academic achievement places them in the top 20 percent of the nation's students who will not go on to college because they are from poor families. What's ironic, according to a recent study by sociologists at Hopkins, is that this "talent loss" among students from low-income environments often has relatively little to do with their families' financial wherewithal. Instead, it often occurs because these students never receive practical advice on applying to college from their high school guidance counselors or other adults.

Will Jordan and Stephen Plank, researchers at Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools, conducted the study based on U.S. Department of Education national survey data and interviews with guidance counselors at large urban schools.

According to Department of Education figures, about 2.5 million students graduate from U.S. high schools each year. In the class of 1992's top-achieving 20 percent (500,000 students), 21 percent (105,000 students) were from families in the lower half of the nation's socioeconomic distribution. Of these very high-achieving low-income students, roughly half did not enroll in a four-year college, and fully 20 percent had not enrolled in any type of college--community college or four-year school--within the first two years after high school. Many never even applied.

This figure of 20 percent starkly contrasts with the enrollment rates of the remaining high-achieving students, 97 percent of whom in the highest socioeconomic quartile and 92 percent in the second highest quartile enrolled in college.

Jordan and Plank found that there are several reasons why these students, who could otherwise easily get into college, never enroll. Some just want to work and make money after high school, some enter the military, and some simply don't like school. But a predominant reason these students don't enroll, the researchers found, is that they didn't plan well. Many didn't seriously start to look into college until the second semester of their senior year. Often, they hadn't taken SATs or other achievement tests when they needed to, or they had made poor choices in course selections. A large number didn't know about the availability of financial aid and scholarships and assumed that they couldn't afford college.

In the study, Plank and Jordan found a direct correlation, regardless of students' socioeconomic backgrounds, between college entrance rates and early (at least by 10th grade) and consistent talks about college between adults and students.

"Unfortunately, in large, urban at-risk schools, the burden to initiate these kinds of talks usually rests on the student," Plank said. "This is not an indictment of the guidance counselors. Very often they are responsible for more than 500 students, and many feel their primary job is to do whatever it takes to keep students from dropping out and to focus on their more immediate social and emotional needs."

In schools where guidance counselors are overloaded, Plank and Jordan suggest that teachers might be enlisted as college advisers and each one might follow about 30 students throughout high school.

Jordan said, "The most important thing is to have someone say things early on to the student like, 'Don't take that basket-weaving course, you need to take this biology course,' or, 'This college looks interesting, why don't you go visit it?' That kind of simple, practical advice can make a difference for the rest of that student's life."

Parts of the report "Reducing Talent Loss: The Impact of Information, Guidance and Actions on Postsecondary Enrollment" can be viewed at
Parts of the report "Sources of Talent Loss among High-Achieving Poor Students" can be viewed at

Related Web Sites

Center for Socialization of Schools

Will Jordan's home page

Stephen Plank's home page