Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 7, Number 4

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 1

Download our print issue (PDF)
Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Right to Learn and the Pathways to College Network
Faculty Involvement
Designing Pathways to a Four-Year Degree
Preparing Students to Succeed in Broad Access Postsecondary Institutions
African-American Student Achievement in Historically Black Colleges and Universities
College Choice and Diversity
Making Diversity News
Media Watch
Linking Student Support with Student Success: The Posse Foundation
Diversity Digest’s New Editor

Designing Pathways to a Four-Year Degree

By Alberto F. Cabrera, professor, department of Educational Administration, WISCAPE senior researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and member of the Research Scholars Panel, Pathways to College Network; Kurt R. Burkum, graduate research assistant & doctoral student, Center for the Study of Higher Education, Pennsylvania State University; and Steven M. La Nasa, visiting assistant professor, School of Education, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Alberto F. Cabrera

Alberto F. Cabrera

Providing access to a myriad of social, economic, and individual benefits, the bachelor’s degree remains the proverbial stepping-stone to a better life. As early as the 1960s, federal, state, and local governments recognized that completion of a four-year degree could be an insurmountable step for individuals from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Student assistance programs such as Chapter I, TRIO, and GEAR-UP recognize that academic preparation, awareness of opportunities for college, and assistance in completing the college application process are especially important for low-income students whose parents are not college-educated.

As helpful as these need-based programs have been in facilitating access to and success in college, they do not appear to explain fully why low-income students enroll in college. Nor do they explain why low-income students persist once enrolled. In addition to a student’s socioeconomic background, a host of other factors affect whether students enroll. These factors include:

  • parental expectations, support and encouragement from family, high school friends, and teachers;
  • educational and occupational aspirations which should be developing by the ninth grade;
  • high school experiences;
  • high school academic resources;
  • access to information about college offerings;
  • access to and understanding of information about financial aid;
  • preparation for entrance exams;
  • the type of first institution attended;
  • enrollment patterns;
  • the nature and kind of remediation;
  • curricular patterns;
  • collegiate experiences;
  • performance in college; and
  • family responsibilities.

The High School Sophomore Cohort of 1980

We studied the high school sophomore cohort of 1980 to understand why postsecondary attendance patterns differ markedly between socioeconomically disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. This article is a summary of the findings. (Complete information, including references, can be found in the online file cited at the end of this article.)

Communications Tip

Most new research—particularly research that debunks myths or challenges common perceptions—will have value to a reporter, especially if it relates to an issue that is currently in the news. Research like that featured in the high school sophomore cohort of 1980 study may be of interest to reporters seeking new angles for stories around the time of college admissions or at the beginning of the college year. If you have research about your own students or about programs designed to address the challenges faced by low-SES students, consider pitching a story at these times of year. To make the story more appealing to reporters, provide both the research data and specific stories of individual students who have overcome some of the challenges identified in the research. Reporters want to cover new research, but they also always like to put a “personal” face on whatever research findings they are highlighting.

The cohort followed nine different pathways to a four-year degree. These paths were determined by the academic resources secured in high school and the first type of postsecondary institution attended. The chance to secure a four-year degree varies in relation to the particular pathway followed.

The pathway most likely to lead to a four-year degree is one defined by acquiring high academic resources in high school and entering a four-year institution upon high school completion. Those who followed this path had a 78 percent chance of graduating within eleven years.
Students with the highest socioeconomic status (SES) followed this pathway, resulting in an 81 percent graduation rate.

Students with the lowest socioeconomic status journeyed on a pathway defined by moderate academic resources and enrollment in a two-year institution. Only 3.3 percent of these students went on to earn a four-year degree.


Forty percent of the high school sophomore cohort of 1980 first entered a community college. Of them, 29 percent transferred to a four-year institution within eleven years. When examining the socioeconomic background of the students, our analyses suggest a stratification pattern whereby:

  • Fifty percent of students with the lowest socioeconomic status first enter a community college, while only 17 percent of them eventually transfer to a four-year institution.
  • Thirty percent of all students with the highest socioeconomic status first enter a community college, and 37 percent of them eventually transfer.
  • Transfer decisions are affected most by academic resources, degree aspirations, college courses in math and sciences, and educational loans, and by whether students have children while attending community college.

Degree Completion

Thirty-five percent of the members of the high school sophomore cohort of 1980 obtained at least a bachelor’s degree by 1993. When the socioeconomic background of the students is examined, our analyses suggest a stratification pattern whereby:

  • Lowest-SES students have a 13 percent chance of graduating within eleven years. The graduation rate for highest-SES students is 57 percent.
  • Degree completion is affected dramatically by SES, academic resources, degree aspirations, enrollment patterns, college courses in math and sciences, and financial aid, and by whether students have children while attending college.


Helping students plan for college should begin in grade school. Interventions designed to advance college aspirations and preparation should take at least three groups into account: students, their families, and K-12 school personnel. Community colleges and four-year institutions can also help educate students and their parents about the benefits associated with college degree completion. They can advise students and parents about K-12 curricular choices that prepare students for college. College personnel can best provide information about the college application process, including financial aid. Summer camps, summer bridge programs, and targeted visits by college representatives also can help eleventh- and twelfth-graders learn more about college. Making these opportunities available as early as the eighth grade is one way to increase awareness of college, particularly among lowest-SES students and their families.

The curriculum is at the heart of academic preparation for college (Adelman, 1999). Currently, policies geared toward securing academic resources for college-level work during the last few years of high school are inadequate. Instead, academic preparation for college should begin as early as the eighth grade. Our results suggest that a rigorous curriculum should foster the development of the critical competencies, values, and skills needed for collegiate work. Our research indicated that the competencies acquired through math and science courses made a difference for members of the 1980 cohort by increasing their chances of transferring and eventually earning a college degree. Current emphasis on the use of testing to hold elementary and secondary institutions accountable will be successful only if the tests themselves are valid measures of collegiate academic resources (National Research Council, 1999). Without this orientation, the testing regime will produce countless children who are able to answer test questions but unable to perform successfully in college.

The Power of Research

Research can be a powerful vehicle for illuminating pathways that can lead to college success. Our study provided invaluable insights about factors that influence college readiness and degree completion. By combining our findings with other studies of how to enhance student learning we can begin to close the troubling gaps in degree attainment and make equal educational opportunity more than just a dream.


Adelman, Clifford. 1999. Crosscurrents and riptides: Asking about the capacity of the higher education system. Change 3 (1): 20-27.
Cabrera, Alberto F., Kurt R. Burkum, and Steven M. La Nasa. 2003. Pathways to a four-year degree: The higher education story of one generation. Madison: University of Wisconsin. (Complete paper can be downloaded in a PDF file or as a PowerPoint presentation at www.education.wisc.edu/edadmin/people/faculty/cabrera.htm.)

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
Copyright 1996 - 2014
Association of American Colleges & Universities | 1818 R Street NW, Washington, DC, 20009