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Report: Path to top colleges for low-income kids is smoother in affluent districts

Low-income students in some of Colorado’s more affluent school districts—Boulder, Cherry Creek, and St. Vrain Valley—are more likely to attend top colleges than their peers around the state.

But across the state, and even in those districts, less well-off students attend elite schools at a lower rate than more affluent students.

A new report from A+ Denver, a nonprofit education advocacy group, encourages districts, parents, and policymakers to pay attention to where, not just whether, students enroll after graduation, and to make an effort to ensure that more low-income students have access to elite schools.

Everyone from public school leaders to universities to President Obama’s administration has made helping low-income students attend and graduate from college a priority. This report argues that elite schools, which tend to have higher graduation rates, are more likely to help students improve their social standing and secure high-paying jobs after graduation.

Statewide, just 3 percent of low-income students attend elite colleges, compared to 12 percent of more affluent students. According to the report, ten percent of all Colorado students attend elite colleges (in this case, schools that earned a place on the U.S. News and World Report rankings) and 57 percent attend college at all.

The researchers write that the current situation may actually exacerbate income inequality, with high-income students having easier access to elite schools and the opportunities that come with them at higher rates

The findings may bolster the arguments of advocates of socioeconomic diversity in schools: Poorer students at wealthier schools and in wealthier districts were more likely to go to college, and wealthier students at poorer schools were less likely to go to college.

The ten districts that sent the biggest portion of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (a common measure of students’ economic background) to elite schools were Boulder (10.9 percent); Cherry Creek (6.3 percent); St. Vrain Valley (5.7 percent); Jeffco (5.1 percent); Westminster (4.4 percent); Denver (3.7 percent); Northglenn-Thornton (3.5 percent); CO Springs (3 percent); Adams-Arapahoe (2.9 percent); and Poudre (2.4 percent).

Of course, overall college-going rates also varied: Just 3 percent of Adams-Arapahoe students who were not low-income went to elite schools, while in Boulder, the rate was more than 30 percent.

The schools that sent the highest portion of low-income students to top schools were the International Baccalaureate program at George Washington in Denver, DSST, and Boulder High School. The drop-off between the very best schools and the next tier was steep: Forty-four percent of low-income George IB students enrolled in elite colleges, compared to 4 percent of such students at East, the tenth-most-successful school.

The researchers advocate for more transparency in the data about which students attend what schools and why; better communication about college to students in an effort to encourage more students to strive for elite colleges; and improving K-12 education so more students in all racial and income groups are equipped for elite schools.

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