High hopes, long odds

Ninety-five percent of low-income students who take the ACT want to go to college, reports The Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013: Students from Low-Income Families. That’s higher than the rate for all students who take the ACT. 

However, low-income students (defined as a family income under $36,000) are less likely to take a strong college-prep curriculum in high school. Only 20 percent meet at least three of the four college readiness benchmarks set by ACT.  Only 59 percent of low-income students who take the ACT go directly from high school to college. That compares to 71 percent of all ACT test-takers.

Colleges are using “predictive analytics” to advise high-risk students, writes Libby Nelson on Vox. The goal is to raise “dismal graduation rates.”

Is flunking a course the sign of a bad semester, or the harbinger of much worse to come? Is a student with a 2.3 GPA going to be fine — “C’s get degrees,” after all — or a future dropout in the making?

But what if the numbers show some students have little chance of success?

Studies show teachers expend more time and attention with students they know will succeed; will professors neglect students data shows are likely to fail? States are under pressure to improve their graduation rates; if they can identify the students least likely to graduate, will it be too tempting to shut them out rather than admit them and help them through?

. . .  The American ethos of college-going rests on “if you can dream it, you can become it.” But when we can pinpoint the students least likely to succeed, what will happen to them?

Many students rely on “magical thinking,” writes Nelson. “From kindergarten through high school graduation, students are steeped in a can-do spirit. Believe in yourself. Reach for the stars. Never give up.”

Students will say an F on a midterm “isn’t a real F,” says Linda McMillin, a provost at Susquehanna University. Professors can use data to persuade them to get real.

“Ninety-eight percent of people who got this grade in this class were not able to change it. Tell me how you’re the exception. Let’s get real here, and let’s think about how we move you into another major that really aligns with your strengths and with your passions and gets you through in four years.”

“This is not a tool to highlight to students that they’re in trouble or can’t make it, says John Nicklow, provost at Southern Illinois University. “It’s an awareness tool to make them aware that now’s the time to buckle down.”

Perhaps middle-school and high school counselors should be armed with predictive analytics. The time to get real and buckle down occurs much earlier.

About Joanne


  1. And how on earth do they expect to do this and not get creamed in court or the press? A good portion of those they will steer toward a more appropriate major will be from groups that are suppose to, at least at the U of Wisconsin, get grade diversity help.

    And are they really going to advise women who can’t make it through the engineering clean-out course to move on? Then the vice provost of diversity and climate will be calling the dean in for a chat about grade adjustments.

  2. In most STEM fields at a four year university (at least when I attended in the early 80’s), the first year is a weed out program, where students who didn’t have the chops for a given field of study found out (usually the hard way) to choose a different major.

    It’s pathetic that we’re trying to diversify everything, but when the student who gets their degree from diversity issues, meets the harsh reality of the real world, and finds out they actually don’t know what they need to know, then it all comes back to reality.


  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I would have generally expected about 99.x percent of test-takers to “want to go to college”, given that the express purpose of the test is college entrance. I mean, there’s always a few contrary types, but I’m really shocked that the overall rate is lower than 95%. Maybe some schools mandate it, or maybe there are just a lot more parents pushing college applications on unwilling students than I would have guessed.

    Still, it makes sense that if the rate is that low, that the rate for groups less inclined to college in general would be higher. Those groups are going to be less likely to be pressured by their parents, less likely to attend schools that mandate college prep activities, etc.

    But wow… less than 95%. It’s nice to know I can still be surprised by things.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “August 12, 2013-All [Louisiana] high school seniors in public school are now required to take the ACT, the high stakes test geared toward college bound students, whether they intend on a higher education or not. Louisiana is the 10th state to use the ACT to measure if students are ready for college or career.

      “The state says they made these changes to increase participation in the ACT, to improve student outcomes by doing the following:

      1. Provide earlier assessment of student progress

      2. Improve student readiness for college

      3. Increase the number of students who consider college

      4. Increase college enrollment and retention

      5. Improve workforce planning and career counseling information.”


      If Louisiana is like other states, they require students to take it in their junior year. Various news stories lists nine of the states as Wyoming, Colorado, Michigan, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina. However, the ACT website only shows five states: Alaska, Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      Yep…Tennessee requires it for all and only 11% of its students pass all 4 benchmarks and get the incredibly low composite of 21 of higher…11%; 15% of Nashville public school kids…then you have the issue of undocumented students not being able to go to public colleges/universities in Tennessee

  4. Nevada just added this (last week) due to a decision by the state board of education. What I’m interested to know is the disconnect between actual scores (0 to 36) and high school GPA’s in various subjects.

    A composite of 21 is average…I scored about 26-27 in my day (circa 1979-1980), so I’d imagine my score is above average (at least for that period of time).

    Most undocumented students usually don’t have the funds to attend public colleges/universities, never mind the issue of what happens when they can’t handle the actual classwork or workload (they’ll be gone within the first year, or sooner).