Hidden Variables | What Does the Ideal College Look Like?

We explored how education data can inform the ideal college choice for students who are either first generation or from low income families.

With thousands of post-secondary institutions to pick from nationally, choosing the right college is a daunting task for any student. It is even more challenging for students from low income households or those whose parents did not graduate college (known as “first generation” students), since they do not typically benefit from the same knowledge and guidance as their peers.

“What was surprising for me was looking at how many colleges there are with the computer science major. I just thought it would be like a couple colleges … I didn’t even know there [were] thousands of colleges you [could] apply to,” said Mark Orr, a senior at Solorio Academy, a charter school in south Chicago.

Orr is not alone.

“Personally, as a first gen college graduate myself, I understand that there are students like me that are getting lost in the system,” said Melissa Connelly, who likened “getting to and through college” to the Olympics. Connelly is Chief Program Officer at OneGoal, a non-profit organization that seeks to solve this very problem. Using a combination of data and in-person guidance, OneGoal helps low income and first-generation students navigate the college application process, and then mentors them during their first academic year, with the aim of setting them up to graduate. OneGoal works with a number of students at Solorio, including Orr.

Picking the right schools is an early, yet crucial, step in the process. But with so many options, what does the “right” school look like?

Data-Driven Decisions

Identifying schools where a student is most academically qualified can help avoid over-reaching or underselling, either of which may lead to a student dropping out. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics states that one in three college students will not graduate within six years of enrollment, due in part to the problems of under- or over-matching.

“Number one, and most importantly, [students need] an academic fit where we know they’ll be challenged, but not something below what they’re capable of,” said Dan Buys, a OneGoal Program Director at Solorio Academy.

Since 1993, the National Center for Education Statistics has conducted a variety of surveys on United States post-secondary institutions and included them in a database called the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Analyzing the IPEDs dataset can help bring clarity to the school selection process. The question is where to start.

Filtering through colleges can start anywhere, from public or private schools, test scores, or GPAs, but one question emerges: Where will I get in?

One way to begin to answer this question is to group schools based on admissions standards, such as standardized test scores. Students can focus their application efforts on the group of schools where they have the best chance at admission.

With this approach in mind, we conducted an analysis that clusters public and not-for-profit private schools by the SAT scores of students previously admitted. Each school falls in one of three groups indicating the schools admissions difficulty and selectivity: low, medium, high. We further segmented the schools by public and private institutions creating six total groups.

The results show a not-very-surprising gap in admissions requirements between elite private schools, such as Harvard or Columbia, and all other private schools. For students who only plan on attending private school, this can help focus their applications. While the overlap in typical test scores across public school groups indicates more options, making it more difficult for a student to prioritize one group of schools over another.

Grouping schools by test scores can narrow the decision, but the number of possible matches is still fairly large within each group. The smallest group, difficult to get into public schools, includes 47 institutions from which to choose.

Along with determining which schools a student can attend, the decision making process likely will include questions of affordability and the likeliness to graduate.

When we plot schools across in-state tuition and six-year graduation rate, two clusters emerge: public schools at the low end of the cost spectrum (assuming they are attended by in-state students) and private schools on the high end. Both private and public segments also span a broad (and similar) range of six-year graduation rates, which positively correlates with how difficult it is to get in. Additionally, the graduation rates for each difficulty level tend to be similar across public and private schools. For example, the graduation rate for the hard-to-get-into groups ranges between 70 percent and 95 percent for both public and private schools.

All things being equal, there is a good case for going to the best in-state public school that a student can get into. This can be reassuring particularly for low-income students who may not be able to afford more expensive private institutions.  

In discussing the main factors affecting her application decision process, senior Stephanie Vega, who is also a OneGoal student, said, “...for me it would probably be the money. How much it actually costs ... is just overwhelming."

Although the lower tuition of state schools would help someone like Vega, there are additional criteria to consider. A student with the academic credentials to get in may not live in a state with a public school that offers a specific degree, or simply doesn’t live in a state with appropriately challenging public schools. More than half of all states (28 out of 50) lack a public university with the hardest admissions standards, suggesting that some students may benefit from attending an out-of-state school and paying significantly higher tuition than in-state students. Students who want to stay close to home may consider a satellite campus over a main campus farther away. Tuition is often lower and students can save money on housing and remain near to their family.

However, there is a trade off. Admissions standards and graduation rates at the smaller satellite schools are often significantly lower than the main campus.

Saving money might not be worth the heightened risk of dropping out. “It is socially unjust that low income students do not have the same opportunity to earn college degrees as higher income peers,” said Connelly.

Illuminating Opportunities

Exploring data is an important component in finding the optimal school, but human involvement is necessary to consider students’ qualitative needs and serve as a support system as they make one of the most difficult decisions of their lives.

“I try to just instill in them the idea that yes, there’s a lot of hurdles, there’s a lot of obstacles regardless if you’re first generation, regardless of financial situations, immigration status, but I can promise you that we will put this work in together through all of these different resources and at the end of the day, it will be worth it,” said Buys, who is a first generation college graduate himself.

“Mr. Buys. Especially Mr. Buys,” said Vega when asked about those who have influenced her college decision process, “he was the one that would go out and do things for us. He would search for material and he would give it to us and he would explain further on. He even took us [on] trips to different colleges and he showed us the campus and gave us different information about it. And we would just tour around.”

Buys also understands the particular dilemma of lower-income students, whose options may be limited to colleges within a specific price range. Without guidance, students run the risk of attending a school with high admission but low graduation rates.

Grouping schools by average SAT scores required for admission helps define relationships between admission and graduation. As expected, highly selective schools admit very few students but graduate most. Highly selective state schools may admit a higher percentage of applicants by their nature as public institutions, but they still graduate the majority of their students. On the other hand, the least selective schools tend to admit many students but may graduate far fewer.

These schools don’t all just attract low-performing students, either. Many enroll high-performing students, but still fall on the low side of graduation rates. The middle band (private and public schools with medium selectivity) have students with average or above-average SAT scores, making them potentially attractive choices for ambitious high schoolers looking for a challenging college experience.

Some of these schools show large drops between admission and graduation rates, possibly indicating a lack of services to support students through graduation. Combined with higher costs, these schools may pose as particularly hazardous for students.

A mentor’s ability to guide students through these potential pitfalls is crucial, but students also value support outside of the classroom. Orr spoke of his older sister’s role early on: “She helped me a lot. She always wants to read all my essays. And then she wants to stay on top of me about my grades because I was slacking at first … [and] she always gives me suggestions of colleges to pick.”

Vega and Alonso also mentioned the roles their parents and other relatives play in encouraging them to succeed. “[My parents] were always telling me [that I] should go to college. ‘It’s gonna be better for your future, it’s gonna be easier for you.’ So I did plan on doing it,” said Vega, whose parents did not graduate high school. Although a family member’s understanding of college may be limited, their support greatly adds to a student’s motivation to succeed.

Data analyses are not meant to replace human presence; they are meant to complement it.

Recently, Uptake partnered with OneGoal to create Student Union, a web app that uses Uptake’s data science models to suggest school matches based off analyses similar to those featured above. Student Union helps Buys work with students at Solorio Academy to choose schools, and its efficiency allows more time to cultivate soft skills like grit and perseverance: qualities that will carry students through the college process.

“Technology is an incredible tool when you have a supportive network to help you navigate it,” said Connelly.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A college degree may not be the only answer, but it armors students with the skills and confidence to combat the most pressing issues society faces, to challenge paradigms, and to ask questions. Income and social status should not determine a child’s access to these skills. “We’re really as a country missing out on so many talented gifts of our young people,” said Connelly.

Solorio Academy seniors sporting OneGoal lanyards. From left to right: Ketziah Alonso, Stephanie Vega, Mark Orr
Solorio Academy seniors sporting OneGoal lanyards. From left to right: Ketziah Alonso, Stephanie Vega, Mark Orr

Systems that help first generation students find and graduate from their ideal college rely on the coordination of the qualitative and the quantitative: grit and GPAs, interview skills and ACT scores, humans and computers. These systems take careful tweaking and constant iteration but give students opportunities they may not have otherwise.

Vega, who wants to major in neuroscience, once saw it as a pipedream. “I was in elementary school and then we started reading this book about neuroscience and I was like wow that sounds pretty cool.” But with the help of OneGoal, she’s morphed the idea into something achievable.

“I thought that I wasn’t good enough, that I wasn’t going to get into the school that I wanted, but now I’m starting to see who I really am, and how I can apply that to get into the school of my dreams.”