Course, Counselor, and Teacher Gaps: Addressing the College Readiness Challenge in High-Poverty High Schools ​

June 2015

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


College degree attainment is widely seen as a key step to reduce poverty and move low-income families and individuals into the middle class. Unfortunately, a college education is more difficult to access for students who grow up in poverty, and far too many low-income students do not attend or complete college. An important question for policymakers and advocates to consider is: what holds low-income students back?

This paper presents a new analysis of education data on high schools in the 100 largest school districts that highlights the role of inadequate K-12 preparation as a barrier to postsecondary success for students who live in poverty. In particular, the analysis highlights stark differences in the quality of college preparation that high school students receive based on their schools’ concentration of poverty. The paper compares characteristics of high-poverty high schools (more than 75 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch) to mid-high poverty (50-75 percent eligible), mid-low poverty (25-50 percent eligible), and low-poverty high schools (fewer
than 25 percent of students eligible). Key findings include:

  • Less-experienced and less-qualified teachers. Roughly 1 in 7 teachers in high-poverty high schools are in their first or second year, compared to fewer than 1 in 10 in low-poverty high schools. In high-poverty high schools, 11.5 percent of teachers are not certified, compared to 3.5 percent in low-poverty high schools.
  • College prep courses less likely to be offered. Algebra II is offered in 84 percent of high-poverty high schools, compared to 94 percent of low-poverty schools. Calculus is offered in 41 percent of high-poverty schools, compared to 86 percent of low-poverty schools. And physics is offered in 69 percent of high-poverty schools, compared to 90 percent in low-poverty schools.
  • More schools without counselors. Students in high-poverty high schools have the strongest need for counselors because their families and community networks are less familiar with higher education opportunities. Yet more than 3 percent of students in high-poverty schools attend a high school with no counselor, compared to 1-2 percent of students in low-poverty and low-mid poverty schools. Among schools with counselors, the counselor to student ratio is slightly better in high-poverty schools (1 counselor per 297 students) than in low-poverty high schools (1 counselor per 353 students). However, both ratios are far higher than recommended.

As these data show, improving postsecondary enrollment and completion requires that we address resource disparities between affluent high schools and those in communities of concentrated poverty. Only then can we provide all students an equitable, high-quality education that prepares them for college and career success

Source: RWJF and Moriah Group