College Attendance among Low-Income Youth: Explaining Differences across Wisconsin High Schools

  • Christian Michael Smith University of California Merced, United States of America
  • Noah Hirschl Doctoral Candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States of America
Keywords: college attendance, educational inequality, geography, low-income students, school effects


Bolstering low-income students’ postsecondary participation is important to remediate these students’ disadvantages and to improve society’s overall level of education. Recent research has demonstrated that secondary schools vary considerably in their tendencies to send students to postsecondary education, but existing research has not systematically identified the school characteristics that explain this variation. Identifying these characteristics can help improve low-income students’ postsecondary outcomes. We identify relevant characteristics using population-level data from Wisconsin, a mid-size state in the United States. We first show that Wisconsin’s income-based disparities in postsecondary participation are wide, even net of academic achievement. Next, we show that several geographic characteristics of schools help explain between-secondary school variation in low-income students’ postsecondary outcomes. Finally, we test whether a dense set of school organisational features explain any remaining variation. We find that these features explain virtually no variation in secondary schools’ tendencies to send low-income students to postsecondary education.


Download data is not yet available.


Alm, J., & Winters, J. V. (2009). Distance and intrastate college student migration. Economics of Education Review, 28(6), 728–738.

Altonji, J. G., & Mansfield, R. K. (2011). The role of family, school, and community characteristics in inequality in education and labor market outcomes. In G. J. Duncan & R. J. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity (pp. 339–358). Russell Sage.

Barron’s (2008). Barron’s profile of American colleges (28th ed.). Barron’s Educational Series.

Baum, S., Ma, J., & Payea, K. (2013). Education pays 2013: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. College Board.

Belley, P., & Lochner, L. (2007). The changing role of family income and ability in determining educational achievement. Journal of Human Capital, 1(1), 37–89.

Bettinger, E. P., Terry Long, B., Oreopoulos, P., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2012). The role of application assistance and information in college decisions. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(3), 1205–1242.

Borman, G. D., & Dowling, M. (2010). Schools and inequality: A multilevel analysis of Coleman’s equality of educational opportunity data. Teachers College Record, 112(5), 1201–1246.

Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. Russell Sage Foundation.

Byun, S., Meece, J. L., & Irvin, M. J. (2012). Rural-nonrural disparities in postsecondary educational attainment revisited. American Educational Research Journal, 49(3), 412–437.

Castleman, B. L., & Page, L. C. (2015). Summer nudging: Can personalized text messages and peer mentor outreach increase college going among low-income high school graduates? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 115, 144–160.

Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E. Q., Hobson, C. J., McPartland, J., Mood, A. M., Weinfeld, F. D., & York, R. L. (1966). Equality of educational opportunity. U.S. Government Printing Office.

Conger, D., Long, M. C., & Iatarola, P. (2009). Explaining race, poverty, and gender disparities in advanced course-taking. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 28(4), 555–576.

Cullen, J. B., Jacob, B. A., & Levitt, S. (2006). The effect of school choice on participants: Evidence from randomized lotteries. Econometrica, 74(5), 1191–1230.

Cutler, D. M., & Lleras-Muney, A. (2006). Education and health: Evaluating theories and evidence (No. w12352). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Deming, D. J., Hastings, J. S., Kane, T. J., & Staiger, D. O. (2014). School choice, school quality, and postsecondary attainment. American Economic Review, 104(3), 991–1013.

Engberg, M. E., & Gilbert, A. J. (2014). The counseling opportunity structure: Examining correlates of four-year college-going rates. Research in Higher Education, 55(3), 219–244.

Engberg, M. E., & Wolniak, G. C. (2010). Examining the effects of high school contexts on postsecondary enrollment. Research in Higher Education, 51(2), 132–153.

Frenette, M. (2009). Do universities benefit local youth? Evidence from the creation of new universities. Economics of Education Review, 28(3), 318–328.

Geppert, C., Bauer-Hofmann, S., & Hopmann, S. T. (2012). Policy reform efforts and equal opportunity-an evidence-based link? An analysis of current sector reforms in the Austrian school system. CEPS Journal, 2(2), 9–29.

Guzman, G. G. (2017). Household income: 2016. U.S. Census Bureau.

Hanushek, E. A. (1989). The impact of differential expenditures on school performance. Educational Researcher, 18(4), 45–62.

Hill, L. D. (2008). School strategies and the “college-linking†process: Reconsidering the effects of high schools on college enrollment. Sociology of Education, 81(1), 53–76.

Hillman, N. W. (2016). Geography of college opportunity: The case of education

deserts. American Educational Research Journal, 53(4), 987–1021.

Hirschl, N., & Smith, C. M. (2020). Well-placed: The geography of opportunity and high school

effects on college attendance. Research in Higher Education, 61, 567–587.

Hoffer, T., Greeley, A. M., & Coleman, J. S. (1985). Achievement growth in public and Catholic schools. Sociology of Education, 58(2), 74–97.

Jackson, C. K., Johnson, R. C., & Persico, C. (2015). The effects of school spending on educational and economic outcomes: Evidence from school finance reforms. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 131(1), 157–218.

Jennings, J. L., Deming, D., Jencks, C., Lopuch, M., & Schueler, B. E. (2015). Do differences in school quality matter more than we thought? New evidence on educational opportunity in the twenty-first century. Sociology of Education, 88(1), 56–82.

Johnson, R. C. (2015). Follow the money: School spending from title I to adult earnings. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 1(3), 50–76.

Klugman, J. (2012). How resource inequalities among high schools reproduce class advantages in college destinations. Research in Higher Education, 53(8), 803–830.

Lapid, P. (2017). Expanding college access: The impact of new universities on local enrollment. Job Market Paper, University of California.

Long, M. C., Conger, D., & Iatarola, P. (2012). Effects of High School Course-Taking on Secondary and Postsecondary Success. American Educational Research Journal, 49(2), 285–322.

McDonough, P. M. (1997). Choosing colleges: How social class and schools structure opportunity. SUNY Press.

McDonough, P. M., & Calderone, S. (2006). The meaning of money: Perceptual differences between college counselors and low-income families about college costs and financial aid. American Behavioral Scientist, 49(12), 1703–1718.

Michelmore, K., & Dynarski, S. (2017). The gap within the gap: Using longitudinal data to understand income differences in educational outcomes. AERA Open, 3(1), 2332858417692958.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). National Center for Education Statistics: State-Level Statistics.

Radford, A. W. (2013). Top student, top school?: How social class shapes where valedictorians go to college. University of Chicago Press.

Raudenbush, S. W., & Willms, J. D. (1995). The estimation of school effects. Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, 20(4), 307–335.

Roscigno, V. J., & Crowley, M. L. (2001). Rurality, institutional disadvantage, and achievement/attainment. Rural Sociology, 66(2), 268–292.

Roscigno, V. J., Tomaskovic-Devey, D., & Crowley, M. (2006). Education and the inequalities of place. Social Forces, 84(4), 2121–2145.

Rumberger, R. W., & Palardy, G. J. (2005). Test scores, dropout rates, and transfer rates as alternative indicators of high school performance. American Educational Research Journal, 42(1), 3–42.

SardoÄ, M., & Gaber, S. (2016). The legacy of the Coleman report: Editorial. CEPS Journal, 6(2), 5–8.

Stephan, J. L., & Rosenbaum, J. E. (2013). Can high schools reduce college enrollment gaps with a new counseling model? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(2), 200–219.

Tach, L., Jacoby, S., Wiebe, D. J., Guerra, T., & Richmond, T. S. (2016). The effect of microneighborhood conditions on adult educational attainment in a subsidized housing intervention. Housing Policy Debate, 26(2), 380–397.

Taylor, C., Wright, C., Davies, R., Rees, G., Evans, C., & Drinkwater, S. (2018). The effect of schools on school leavers’ university participation. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 29(4), 590–613.

Turley, R. N. L. (2009). College proximity: Mapping access to opportunity. Sociology of Education, 82(2), 126–146.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2015). Child nutrition programs—income eligibility guidelines. Federal Register, 80(61), 9–10.

Webber, D. A. (2016). Are college costs worth it? How ability, major, and debt affect the returns to schooling. Economics of Education Review, 53, 296–310. doi:10.1016/j.econedurev.2016.04.007

Wolniak, G. C., & Engberg, M. E. (2007). The effects of high school feeder networks on college enrollment. The Review of Higher Education, 31(1), 27–53.

How to Cite
Smith, C. M., & Hirschl, N. (2022). College Attendance among Low-Income Youth: Explaining Differences across Wisconsin High Schools. Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal, 12(3), 33-57.