Improving Access To Postsecondary Education

An array of family, school and community characteristics clearly work together in shaping students’ access to postsecondary education. Our research identified a number of factors, many of them interrelated, that act as barriers to students continuing their education after high school.


These factors include:


– Being from a family in which neither parents nor siblings have gone to college;

– Having parents who are not actively involved in school and in post-high school planning;

– Being from a community with low educational expectations, a community where a college education is not perceived as being particularly valuable, or a community where college is not perceived as being affordable;

– Not being in the top academic track in high school; and

– Not saving for college, not planning ahead about how to finance postsecondary education, and/or coming from a family with limited resources for college.


The Influence of Parents and Family


Undeniably, parents play a key role in shaping students’ attitudes toward college. They have the potential to be the greatest resource in helping their children prepare for postsecondary education, but if they fail to be actively involved, parents can instead create a barrier to college.


– In families where a parent completed college, college attendance is much more likely to be expected for the children. Not surprisingly, parents who completed college themselves report much higher comfort levels with assisting their child in college planning and financing than parents who do not have college experience.

– The extent to which parents have investigated financing options for college emerged as a key factor in students’ college aspirations. Students with high aspirations are much more likely to report that their parents have taken tangible steps toward planning to pay for college than are students with moderate or low aspirations.

– Educators name low student aspirations as the number one barrier to college. The next three factors educators see as key barriers to college for their students involve parents: parents’ lack of a college education, parents’ lack of involvement in planning, and parents’ perception that college is unattainable.

– Students who have a sibling in college have more positive attitudes toward college and tend to get an earlier start with college planning.


The Influence of Academic Tracks


Survey respondents were asked which of three main academic tracks they (or their children) were placed in: Advanced Placement/Honors (about 30% of students), College Prep (about 50%), or General/Vocational Prep (about 20%). While some educators reported that their high schools do not explicitly track students, virtually all students and parents were able to identify their (or their child’s) academic track. This study found dramatic differences in students’ aspirations, post-high school planning approaches, level of parental involvement and overall school experience based on their academic track.


– Parents of students in the College Prep and, particularly, the AP/Honors tracks are stronger advocates for college attendance, more proactive and helpful in planning for the future, and are more likely to have gone to college themselves.

– College-educated parents surveyed were roughly three times more likely to report that their child is in an AP/Honors academic track than were parents who have only a high school diploma. Almost no families in which both parents hold a college degree reported that their child is in a General/Voc Prep academic track.

College Prep track students and their parents are significantly less proactive than those in the AP/Honors track about taking concrete steps for college planning and financing.

– AP/Honors students are more likely than others to report that some class time at school is devoted to college planning and that their peers are helpful in the planning process.

– General/Voc Prep track students report being less challenged by their schoolwork; they are twice as likely as AP/Honors students to say school is no more than somewhat challenging. Parents of these students report that their children receive lower levels of support and encouragement from teachers.

– Educators and students agree that schools do a better job preparing AP/Honors and College Prep students than General/Voc Prep students for success in the future.

– General/Voc Prep students report more difficulty getting their post-high school planning started and finding information about college planning than do students in the other two tracks. They are more likely to report that they wish their parents had more time to help with post-high school planning. Their parents are less likely to feel that they are receiving good planning information than are parents of students in the other two tracks.

– College Prep and General/Vocational Prep track students who have high aspirations report higher levels of support and help with planning at school (e.g., regular guidance counselor meetings, class time spent on planning, college campus visits through their school) than do those with moderate or low aspirations.


The Disparity between Attitudes and Actions


Educators see low student aspirations as the number one barrier to college, while students themselves, as well as their parents, report very high aspirations and very positive attitudes about college. Our research suggests that this can be explained in part by the distance between attitudes and actions. While students and their parents feel very positive about their futures and their chances of going to college, they are not always taking the concrete steps needed to make this dream a reality.


– 84% of students acknowledge that they hold primary responsibility for their future planning. Some students, however, particularly those in the College Prep and General/Voc Prep academic tracks, feel that it is difficult to get started thinking about and planning for college.

– Student discussions suggest that a “push” from schools to get started with planning early would be helpful, particularly for those students with low to moderate aspirations.

Educators report that students (particularly those in a General/Voc Prep track, but also those in College Prep tracks) are not proactive in taking advantage of the planning resources that schools offer.

– Students generally perceive their parents as being quite involved and helpful with future planning. But when presented with a list of specific planning activities, they report participation by parents that is somewhat limited.

– Parents may also overestimate their level of involvement in planning for their children’s futures. More parents report having had serious family discussions about future plans than do students or young adults. Students also report having these discussions less frequently and starting them later in high school, on average, than do parents.

– Educators are less positive in rating parents’ awareness of different college financing options and the degree to which they have begun college financial planning than are parents themselves.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.