August 10, 2021

High School Students - Who They Are and What They Want

A 2018 study found that the immediate college enrollment rate of graduating high school students was about 69%, with 44% of graduates enrolling in 4-year institutions and 26% enrolling in 2-year schools.

High school graduation is expected to peak in 2025 and begin a decline over the next decade. As the number of high school students decreases, successful college recruitment will require serving the needs of the demographics that are increasing, such as first-generation, low-income, or Hispanic students.

To provide for the unique needs and interests of this shrinking and changing pool of high school students, it is critical to understand how student’s goals and needs vary among different demographic and psychographic profiles.

In this paper, student responses are sorted according to race (Asian, Black, white, Hispanic or Latino, Middle Eastern, and Native American), and students of are also classified under one of four categories: first-generation and low-income, first-generation and non-low-income, non-first-generation and low-income, or non-first-generation and non-low-income.

This whitepaper analyzes proprietary data from over 18,000 high school students on and from recent leading studies to guide your outreach strategy and increase your enrollment.

Diversity of students, public vs. private schools

The racial makeup of schools is rapidly changing, as the share of white students decreases while the number of minority students, particularly Asian and Hispanic students, increases.

Student diversity in public schools

Among public elementary and secondary schools in 2017, 48% of students were white, a 13 percentage point decrease from 61% in 2000. By 2029, the percentage of public primary and secondary students who are white is expected to drop to 44%.

Between 2000 and 2017, the number of Black students enrolled in public primary and secondary schools decreased from 17% to 15% but is expected to remain the same by 2029. The portion of Hispanic students has seen a significant increase from 16% in 2000 to 27% in 2017.

Student diversity in private schools

Private schools demonstrate less racial diversity, with 69% of private primary and secondary students being white in 2015. Only 9% of private elementary and high school students were Black, 10% were Hispanic, and 6% were Asian.

Private school students were also less likely to live in a low-income household, with 19% of public school students living in a poor household as compared to 8% of private school students.

Low-poverty vs. high-poverty schools

School poverty levels can also be seen through the amount of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL). Low-poverty schools are public schools in which less than 25% of students are eligible and high-poverty schools are those in which at least 75% of students qualify for FRPL.

Only 8% of white students attend a high-poverty school as compared to 45% of Black and Hispanic students, 41% of American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 15% of Asian students.

Asian students are the most likely to attend a low-poverty school, as 39% attend a low-poverty school, followed by white students at 31%. Black students are the least likely to attend a low-poverty school, with only 7% attending. Similarly, only 8% of American Indian/Alaska Native and Hispanic students attend a low-poverty school.

Only 10.2% of elementary and secondary students are enrolled in private schools, with about 5.8 million students attending private schools in 2015.

Enrollment trends - are low-income students disadvantaged?

While high school enrollment hasn’t significantly changed in recent years, graduation rates have increased. In 2007 only 83.9% of 18-to-24-year-olds had graduated high school, as compared to 87.5% in 2017.

Part of the reason for this general growth is the substantial increase in the number of Hispanic graduates, which was 67.4% in 2007 but grew to 82% in 2017. This increase in graduating students demonstrates potential enrollment growth for college campuses as more students are able to apply.

However, COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on college enrollment, particularly among low-income students. Enrollment of low-income high school graduates decreased by 29.2% during the pandemic, while enrollment only fell by 16.9% for students from higher-income backgrounds.

Community colleges suffered the most pronounced decline during the pandemic, with enrollment of low-income students decreasing by 37.1%.

Fortunately, COVID-19 has not significantly affected high school graduation rates in aggregate. In 2020, graduation rates remained consistent with those of 2019.

However, graduation rates of low-income schools declined by 0.7% and high poverty schools saw graduation fall by 1.3% compared to 2019 rates. Comparatively, non-low-income schools saw graduation increase by 0.4% and non-high-poverty schools had a 0.3% increase in graduation.

Location may also be a factor in enrollment trends, as reports by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show a smaller decrease in immediate college enrollment from suburban high schools than from urban or rural high schools. Suburban high schools saw college enrollment decline by 6.1%, while both urban and rural high schools had a college enrollment decrease of 7.5%

Characteristics of high school students

Research experience - who has it?

Research experience varies widely across different racial groups surveyed as well as by status as first-generation and/or low-income. The group with the highest reported amount of research experience was Asian students who are neither first-generation nor low-income, with 16.5% of these students having research experience.

The group with the lowest amount of research experience was Hispanic or Latino students who are both first-generation and low income, as only 4.9% of these students have research experience.

Race was shown to be an important factor in the research experience, or lack thereof, of the students surveyed.

  • Asian students had the highest amount of experience, ranging from 9.3% to 16.5% across the four categories.
  • Middle Eastern students had the second-highest rates of experience, ranging from 13% to 14.4%,
  • Next were Native American students, ranging from 8.2% to 12.5%.
  • Finally, White, Black, and Hispanic or Latino students all reported similarly low rates of internship experience, ranging from about 5% to 7%.

The rankings of the first-generation, low-income categories also varied by race, yet some trends were observed. Among Black and white students, the category with the highest percentage of research experience was first-generation, low-income students.

For Asian, Hispanic or Latino, and Middle Eastern students, the category with the highest amount of research experience was the opposite: students who are non-first-generation and non-low-income.

Job experience - rates across racial and first-generation/low-income categories

Job experience varies not only by race but also based on first-generation or low-income status. The group with the highest percentage of job experience was white students who are first-generation and non-low-income, at 74.5% and white students from all categories were most likely to have job experience.

The group with the lowest percentage of job experience was Asian students who are low-income but non-first-generation, with 44.3% of this group having job experience. Asian students across all categories were the least likely to have job experience.

Among different racial groups, the category with the highest percentage of job experience varies. For Black students, the category with the highest amount of job experience was first-generation, low-income students, at 61.9%.

However, the category with the highest percentage for Asian, Hispanic or Latino, and Middle Eastern students was non-first-generation, non-low-income students, with 47.9% of Asian students in this category having job experience as compared to 55% of Hispanic or Latino students, and 59.1% of middle Eastern students.

Across every racial group, the category of first-generation, non-low-income students was the category with the highest or second-highest percentage of job experience. The category of non-first-generation, non-low-income students had the lowest or second-lowest percentage of job experience across every racial group, and the other categories had more variation.

Is Volunteer experience equally distributed?

The reported volunteer experience displays more consistent trends than were shown in the job and research experience data. In each racial group, the category with the lowest amount of volunteer experience was first-generation, low-income students. Additionally, all racial groups had the same category with the highest amount of volunteer experience: non-first-generation, non-low-income students.

So, who is the most likely to have volunteer experience?

  • The group that reported the highest percentage was Asian students who are not first-generation or low-income, at 85.7%.
  • A close second was middle Eastern students who are neither first-generation nor low-income, at 84.9%.
  • Next is white students from the same category at 80.1%.
  • Comparatively, the group with the lowest amount of volunteer experience was Black students who are both first-generation and low-income, at 60.0%.

Volunteering can help students prepare for and gain admission to colleges. Volunteering gives students community service experience and demonstrates engagement, and it can also teach leadership and networking skills, helping students achieve success in college and in the job-market.

Additionally, volunteer experience is very advantageous for students, as it makes students 27% more likely to become employed. Employers often prefer candidates who have volunteering experience and are 82% more likely to hire someone with volunteer experience.

Standardized testing, who is more likely to succeed?

ACT breakdown

Among all racial groups surveyed, low-income students had lower average ACT scores than non-low-income students, amongst both first-generation and non-first-generation students. The group with the highest average ACT scores reported were in the non-first-generation, non-low-income category, with Asian students scoring highest at 29.19, followed by middle Eastern students at 27.93, and then white students at 25.74.

The lowest average scores reported were from students who are both low-income and first-generation, with Black students averaging 19.49, Native American students scoring 20.74, and Hispanic or Latino students averaging 20.81. The data also shows that Asian, Black, white, and middle Eastern students who are first-generation but not low-income scored higher than students of the same race who are low-income but not first-generation.

ACT scores have long shown gaps between students, with underserved students earning lower scores. Only 9% of students who are low-income, first-generation, and racial minorities demonstrate “strong readiness” for college based on their ACT performance.

This gap can partially be attributed to test-prep courses, or lack thereof. Many low-income students have less access to test-preparation services and many first-generation students may lack guidance from family members about preparing for the ACT, resulting in lower scores.

Short-term preparation for the ACT leads to an average of a 1.2 to 1.5 point increase in a student’s composite score. Longer-term preparation, such as high school coursework that aimed to prepare students for the test.

Students who received this type of long-term preparation showed even higher gains, making students gain an average of 2.5 to 5.8 points on their composite score. Students from low-income schools and communities are less likely to have access to this kind of preparatory coursework at their schools.

SAT breakdown

Average SAT scores reported show very similar trends, with non-low-income non-first-generation students having the highest scores, with Asian students leading with 1,353 followed by middle Eastern students at 1,305, and then by white students at 1,223.  In other categories based on first-generation or low-income status, this ranking was maintained with Asian students scoring highest, followed by middle Eastern students and then by white students.

The lowest average SAT scores also follow the trends that the ACT scores show, with first-generation low-income students scoring the lowest. Within this category, the lowest scores were:

  • Black students averaging 990
  • Native American students scoring 1,023
  • Hispanic or Latino students earning an average 1,041.

Black students also scored the lowest on average in each category, with the average first-generation, low-income score of Black students being 990, followed by the non-first-generation, low-income score of 1,035, then by the first-generation, non-low-income score of 1,047, and with the highest score being from the non-first-generation, non-low-income category at 1,115.

The SAT gap between wealthy and low-income students has been a longstanding issue. In 2014, the Washington Post reported that:

  • Students from families making less than $20,000 per year scored the lowest, averaging 1326*
  • Students from families earning over $200,000 per year averaged a score of 1714*
  • For the income groups within these two extremes, average SAT scores based on the student’s family income increased directly as the family income bracket increased.

There are many reasons why lower-income students don’t score as highly as their higher-income peers. For example, students from wealthier families are more likely to have highly-educated parents. When SAT scores were averaged by parental education, a similar trend was found to that of familial income.

  • Students with parents who didn’t finish high school earned an average of 1294*
  • This number was followed by an average 1394* for students whose parents completed high school
  • Next, students whose parents earned an Associate degree earned a 1434* on average
  • For students whose parents held a Bachelor’s degree, the average score was 1576*
  • Finally, students whose parents had a graduate degree earned an average of 1689*

Students who are low-income are also more likely to attend low-income schools, which often offer fewer resources to help students prepare for standardized testing.

Schools in wealthier communities are more likely to offer PSATs to students, which is correlated to high scores on the SAT. Students who never took the PSAT scored an average of 1409* on the SAT, while students who took the PSAT sophomore year earned an average of 1489*.

Students who took the PSAT as a junior scored even higher, averaging 1507*. Finally, students who took the PSAT twice, once as a junior and once prior to junior year, scored the highest, earning an average of 1612*.

*A perfect score in 2014 was a 2400 but is now a 1600

GPA statistics - large discrepancies?

Of non-first-generation students, Asian students reported the highest average GPAs: 3.64 in the non-low-income category and 3.55 in the low-income category. Asian students also rank the highest among first-generation, low-income students with an average of 3.52, but middle Eastern students averaged the highest in the first-generation, non-low-income category at 3.59. Another interesting result was that white students and Hispanic or Latino students reported the same average GPA, 3.32, in the first-generation, low-income category, yet white students averaged higher than Hispanic or Latino students in every other category.

In this breakdown, the average GPAs of first-generation, non-low-income students were very close to the GPAs of non-first generation, low-income students. Asian students in these two categories displayed identical GPAs, 3.55, and Black students in these categories also had the same average: 3.27. Other racial groups had different, but very close scores between the two categories.

Part of the reason for the GPA discrepancy between students based on race is the resources and academic rigor of schools. Schools today are still largely segregated.

A third of students in the US attend a school in which 90% of the student body is made up of one race. However, only 23% of Black students in the US South attend a school where at least half of the student body is white.

Instead, many BIPOC students attend low-income schools, which are often underfunded and underserved. For example, in 54 of 97 large cities, more than 80% of Black students attend schools where the majority of their peers are low-income.

Which students expect to need educational loans?

When asked whether or not they expect to take out a loan, our high-school respondents showed vast variability across racial groups and first-generation, low-income categories.

The group with the highest number of students who expect to take out loans was white students who are first-generation but not low-income, at 83.8%. White and Asian students on average showed the highest expectation for needing loans.

The group with the lowest amount of students expecting to take out loans was Black students who are first-generation but not low-income, with 69.5% of these students expecting to need loans.

How much do students expect to take out in loans?

In addition to considering whether or not they would need loans, students were also asked how much debt they expected to take on. Among Asian, Black, white, and Hispanic or Latino students, the category with the most responses was first-generation, low-income students who expect to take out $10,000 or less. Within this category:

  • Hispanic students had the highest percentage, with 37.8% expecting to take out $10,000 or less in loans
  • Second were white students, 37.0% of whom expected to take out the same amount in loans
  • Next were Black students at 34.1%
  • Finally, Asian students at 30.1%

How do education goals differ by race and financial status?

Among all racial groups and first-generation, low-income categories, the most popular level of education sought was a Bachelor’s degree. However, the one exception was first-generation, non-low-income middle Eastern students, whose most popular level of desired education was a doctoral degree, at 19.5%, followed closely by a Bachelor’s degree at 18.2%. Across the categories, middle Eastern students reported very close levels of desiring a Bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree.

Across all the racial groups and categories, roughly the same amount of students plan on getting a Master’s degree as those who desire a doctoral degree.

Middle Eastern students are the exception as the high percentage of students planning to pursue a doctoral degree was significantly higher than the number of students desiring a master’s degree.

The least popular desired levels of education were generally trade school, high school, and then an associate’s degree. This shows that students, regardless of race, income status, or first-generation status, are planning on pursuing at least a four-year degree, possibly followed by graduate school.

Common fields of interest amongst high school students

The top fields of interest among students also showed significant trends and similarities.

In nearly every low-income, first-generation category across all racial groups, the top field of interest was psychology or business.

Among white students regardless of income or first-generation status, psychology was the top field of interest. Psychology was also the top choice for several other groups of students, though business was more likely to be the top choice for minority students.

Three groups had a top field of interest other than business or psychology: Native American, first-generation, non-low-income students, with Spanish being the number one choice, and Native American and Black non-first-generation, non-low-income students, whose top field of interest was music.

Music was a high-ranking choice for many racial groups, including Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian students, and it was the second-highest-ranking choice for white students, regardless of income status or first-generation status. Other popular fields of interest include art, history, biology, mathematics, Spanish, and writing.

Majors of interest among student groups

While top fields of interest were very consistent among students of different races, the reported majors of interest demonstrate more variation. Among Asian students, computer science was the number one major of interest, regardless of income or first-generation status. For Middle Eastern students, biology was the top major of interest across all first-generation, low-income categories.

However, for white, Black, and Hispanic or Latino students, business was the top choice. Native American students demonstrated more variability across the first-generation, low-income categories, with business being the top choice for first-generation, non-low-income students and non-first-generation, low-income students.

For Native American first-generation, low-income students, nursing was the number one choice, and the top choice for non-first-generation, non-low-income Native American students was biology.

How do students’ career goals compare?

These word clouds show the most commonly reported career goals of low-income students, non-low-income students, first-generation students, and non-first-generation students.

There are noticeable similarities among the responses from low-income students and first-generation students, with medicine being the top response for both. Additionally, careers such as creative director and engineering were popular among both groups.

Low-income students

Non-low-income students

There are also similarities between the goals of non-low-income students and non-first-generation students, with law, company founding, fire, and medicine being among the popular responses.

First-generation students
Non-first-generation students

While students of different races and different income and first-generation status share many similarities in education goals, fields of interests, and loan expectancies, they all have different needs. First-generation students often have fewer resources when applying to college since parents are likely unfamiliar with the process.

Additionally, low-income students may have different high school experiences than students from high-income schools, which may have smaller class sizes, more AP classes offered, and other resources provided.

Furthermore, as discussed above, being first-generation and/or low-income may make students more likely to have lower test scores and GPAs, and race can also be a factor as Asian students demonstrate higher scores than other racial groups, such as Black students.

Considering the identities of the students you’re reaching out to as well as the unique challenges that come from being a minority student, first-generation, and/or low-income is essential to diversify your student body. Providing for the needs of students with different backgrounds benefits not only the students but your campus as well.There are currently 15.4 million students enrolled in high school in the United States, about 3.7 million of whom will be graduating at the end of the 2020-21 school year.