Dynarski cites a recent publication from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which has been tracking a cohort of young people since 2002 as part of its Education Longitudinal Study.
NCES researchers found that while 58 percent of the high school students from the most disadvantaged families expected to earn a college degree, just 14 percent had done so thirteen years later. By comparison, 87 percent of the most advantaged students planned to earn a bachelors degree, and 60 percent eventually achieved that goal.
Were the poor children “simply overconfident, with aspirations outstripping their academic skills”? asks Dynarski. Her answer: no. “Academic skills in high school… explained only a small part of the socioeconomic gap in educational attainment.”
In fact, a disadvantaged teenager with top high school test scores and a rich teenager with average scores were equally likely to graduate with a college degree, writes Dynarski, with 41 percent of both groups having received a degree by their late 20s.
Susan Dynarski is a professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and a professor of education at the University of Michigan's School of Education. She is co-founder and co-director of the Ford School’s Education Policy Initiative, which engages in applied, policy-relevant research designed to improve overall educational achievement and outcomes.