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.


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