Where My Freshmen Hope to Attend College

Before a test last winter, I asked my ninth-graders to name between one and three colleges they hope to get into by their senior year of high school.

Then I estimated the mean GPA of accepted students at all the colleges mentioned in my survey results. If a student named more than one college, I found the average GPA of accepted applicants on each campus and averaged this mean to create a composite GPA – a target number for every student. Afterward I compared these values to the current college prospects of my freshmen students by subtracting the first-semester GPA of each student from the composite/target GPA I determined from their survey response.

Confusing? Pretend a student named Anthony responded to my survey by naming three schools – Howard, NYU, and Florida State. I found the average GPAs of admitted students at these colleges are 3.2, 3.6, and 3.76, respectively. I averaged them to get a composite score of 3.52 – an approximate “target GPA” for Anthony, as his cumulative GPA should fall somewhere near this value by the beginning of his senior year if he wants to be a competitive applicant at these schools. Unfortunately, Anthony’s current GPA is a 2.37. While this is above the 2.21 average for freshman at my high school (σ = 0.726), it still puts him 1.15 points away from his target score. If this doesn’t improve, it is highly unlikely that any of the three schools he named would actually select him from their applicant pool.

Discouragingly, our hypothetical “Anthony” is doing better than the average student in my sample.


Three out of every four students are at least one full point beneath their target GPA; the average student is almost 1.5 points off track.

One freshman with a 1.58 GPA hopes to get into Yale, Harvard, and MIT. Another with a 2.01 anticipates her enrollment at Georgetown. Yet another student (who scrawled “PRINCETON” across the entire page of his survey) has a cumulative GPA of 2.21 – over 1.6 points below the typical Tiger admit.

Grade point average does not speak holistically to the likelihood of an applicant’s success (for getting in or graduating). In fact, many schools look for other barometers when considering admission for underserved students, as GPA is not a consistently reliable predictor of success. But this number is a stronger explanatory variable for the admission of socioeconomically underrepresented students than other variables I had access to, such as standardized test scores; moreover, a GPA disparity greater than 0.5 starts to significantly decrease anyone’s chances of admission at most universities.

This simple exploration obviously raises a ton of questions. Like some of these:

  1. Why is this GPA gap so monumental?
  2. What do my students actually know about colleges and college admission?
  3. What signals can be inferred from the sample of schools that my students named?
  4. How does this “pre-application awareness” compare to that of students from a school that serves a more affluent community?
  5. What colleges do my students actually attend, and what are the typical outcomes of minority students at these institutions?

Over the next several posts, I’ll explore these questions and others. Stay tuned, and share your thoughts in the comments below!


3 thoughts on “Where My Freshmen Hope to Attend College

  1. I think 2 – 3 are all part of a larger issue around the preparation (or lack thereof) given to kids re: college prep. I would be willing to say that >all< of the kids I taught (and at least most of the kids my corps members now teach) came in knowing very little about college, and having received scant prep or support in their quest to reach it. That's not to say that my kids didn't want to go to college; on the contrary, tons of them did. But when pressed about what schools they were interested in, I got similar answers: big-time Ivies and schools with high profiles through sports (ie, Oregon), TV (ie, L'Ecole Culinaire), and presence in the school (ie, LeMoyne Owen, a local HBCU). My perception was that kids don't really have an idea of what or why they want to go to school, so in the absence of information, they just pick something they've heard of or abstractly aspire to. My experience here in good ol' Tennessee is that there's just not a lot of information out there for students in high-poverty schools. Many of my students didn't know people who had gone to and through college, and the school didn't do much to effectively bridge that gap. A lot of schools pay lip service to college awareness, which often means some pennants on the walls and little else. And in a lot of high-need schools, guidance counselors are quasi-administrators, with huge loads of kids and big chunks of time spent doing admin tasks.

    1 is a whole can of worms that I don't want to open, because I have work I am supposed to be doing right now and this post is already way long.

    To #4, contrast that with my experience, growing up in a white, middle-class family. I always knew I would go to college. My brother was in college when I was in high school. My parents both went to college. It was expected of me that I would go to college, and I internalized that expectation. I fit my teachers' image of a kid going to college. I was never labeled for special education. I had access to schools with high levels of funding and quality, tenured teachers, and from a very early age, ie, early elementary school, I was tracked into college-track classes. Because of lack of resources, prejudice and biases within the system, and an evolving education ideology around getting students to and through college that is not yet fully embracing the importance of guidance/student support, my kids and my CMs' kids don't have that experience. That disparity is heightened in a district like Memphis or DC struggling with a vast population of students in poverty.

    As far as #5, that's pretty depressing. My students went to places like U of Memphis, satellite campuses of the U. of Tennessee, or community colleges. Some went to trade school. Statistics say that most of them will not earn a degree. Nationwide, the three-year graduation rates for black males at community colleges are in the single digits.

    Pretty scary.

    • Andy – you gave me so much to respond to!

      A) I agree that question 2 and 3 are related to college preparatory resource access – in fact, I think your point about pennants on the wall and throwing college names around is a really important one to make, right? We can’t keep saying “COLLEGE COLLEGE COLLEGE” and assume our students are ready because we use the word all of the time.

      B) I think that your point for question 4 actually holds just as much weight with respect to the earlier questions, if not more. Not to divulge the entire discussion of a future post, but I suspect that being part of a community in which college is an expectation has a significant impact on postsecondary trajectory – these students get into much better schools, and (I hypothesize that) they do better in college once they get there (for many reasons). Ironically, I went to a high school with less college preparatory support than the high school at which I teach; but the question in my middle-class family was never “will you go to college?” Instead, it was “Where are you going to college?” To me, this difference suggests that identity-based motivation is at play (i.e., if you’re surrounded by people who don’t attend or complete college before you get there, you often see struggles as failures and inadequacies – your brain gets less of the positive reinforcement necessary to keep going, and you get the sense that you don’t belong). More significantly, it implies (as you said) that low-income students don’t have the I-know-how-because-I’ve-done-it-before support at home. I want to measure these ideas, but current transitional data quality is SO BAD! We need groups like the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Data Quality Campaign to continue their advocacy for higher resolution postsecondary data to move policy research forward on this front…

      C) …But I did have a friend survey her students in a Northern VA freshman classroom, so I’ll share the differences of my relatively trivial dataset soon.

      D) Regarding the college groups you named, I think you’re spot on. Ivy League schools, colleges with massive athletic programs, and HBCUs almost exclusively make the list. One interesting spin on my classroom stems from the fact that I teach in DC: there’s no public college option outside of UDC. The District has discount vouchers for students who are admitted to public universities, but they don’t lower out-of-state tuition enough for the discount to choose, say, most public schools in Virginia or Maryland over a private school in the region. That dataset I mentioned above will allow me to speculate about insights and future questions after it gets processed.

  2. One last thought. I taught in a school that was 100% black, 99.8% free and reduced lunch, and had sent 8% of its students to a four-year college the year I arrived. There’s a lot of schools that do a much better job of prepping students for college than good ol’ T-High, but I’m not really convinced that’s enough for all students after working with some high-performing charters here. So while my thoughts come from a really different context, I think it’s a shared underlying issue across the board.

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