K-12 Pipeline to Higher Education

To truly uncover inequities in access to and success during college for students in Franklin County, Ohio, one must clearly define all that rigorous high school academic preparation entails. Factors that must be considered include but are not limited to: teacher preparation and development, rigorous academic preparation and curriculum opportunities, and the impact of high stakes testing on student achievement. Also, addressing the performance of marginalized student populations in Franklin County must include student populations that have been historically underserved.

Black girls raising hands in classroom

Rigorous Academic Preparation

Rigorous academic preparation leads to success in college (Porter & Polikoff, 2012). Academic rigor is the balance between challenging and frustrating a student: educators challenge students to think, perform, and grow to a level at which they were not previously (Matusevich et al., 2009). K-12 and higher education are often disconnected. Programs like Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Dual-Enrollment, and College Credit Plus (CCP) have aided in bridging this gap and preparing students for college. CCP opportunities are available in some Franklin County high schools, but not all. Improving academic offerings through CCP partnerships and the quality of dual-enrollment courses increases academic rigor and graduation rates, and benefits all stakeholders (Fowler & Luna, 2009). However, due to a lack of teacher preparation and resources, academic rigor and graduation rates do not see growth because some college preparation and CCP/dual-credit courses may not be as challenging or preparatory as they should (Watt et al., 2011).

Although many underfunded schools have increased AP course offerings, the quality of those courses may not be equitable. To help mediate this inequity, Hallett and Venegas (2011) suggest more professional development for teachers, intentional planning of the curriculum, and systematic implementation of AP courses. The same could be said about the rigor of dual-enrollment courses, where students take college coursework while in high school (Hughes & Edwards, 2012).

Teacher Preparation

Teachers in Franklin County schools should focus on addressing inequities that inhibit student success and reduce academic rigor. Teacher support of rigorous and challenging instruction in the classroom depends on the quality of teacher preparation programs, availability of school resources, and other environmental factors. To prepare teachers, Stein and Stein (2015) advocated for more time for pre-service teachers to practice in schools, so that they will feel equipped to present holistic and individualized content while supporting marginalized populations. Teachers must also be aware that marginalized identities intersect and do not appear in isolation. For example, Kannos and Kangas (2014) found that teachers should implement rigorous academic preparation concurrently with English Language Learner (ELL) instruction. To wait for complete proficiency would delay opportunities for ELL students to choose their curricular rigor, master content, and perform well. Franklin County has a large ELL population, and teacher preparation is essential in ensuring that all students feel supported and challenged while exceeding benchmarks.

The Ohio Graduation Test and College Entrance Exams

The state of Ohio administers The Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) to tenth-grade students, in accordance with statewide learning standards. When thinking about how testing results are used to inform policy, one must think about the various inequities that students may face. For example, Columbus City Schools showed greater discrepancies in attendance during OGT exam sessions than did any other Franklin County district. Attendance directly correlates with other environmental factorsRobotic stem creation that include home life, neighborhood condition, and poverty (Adams, 2017). Relying on test scores to create policies may not address the root of systemic issues that contribute to inequity.

The ACT and SAT are national scholastic examinations taken by college-bound students. Some institutions in Ohio view student admission processes with a more holistic lens, yet ACT and SAT scores are still used to assess whether a student is college-ready. Testing aptitude is not a sole predictor of future academic success. K-12 teachers and administrators should focus more on developing mentorship, emotional intelligence, and social responsibility (Sparkman et al., 2012).

Academic rigor, teacher preparation, and testing during K-12 are extremely important factors to consider when addressing preparation-related inequities that impact college access. However, once students pass that threshold and enter the stage of college access, they still face inequities. For example, meeting high school graduation requirements may be difficult for students in certain districts who cannot solely focus on school because they also work to help support their families. Additionally, the process of translating high school accomplishments into application requirements for various institutions in Franklin County can be unfamiliar for first-generation students. One must consider the fact that some students in Franklin County K-12 schools have been historically restricted from accessing certain educational opportunities because of systemic oppression. Students of color and other marginalized groups are historically underrepresented in Franklin County institutions because of financial, academic, and/or socio-cultural barriers, as well as others. To help combat this systemic oppression, it is imperative that postsecondary institutions seek to diversify not only their applicant pool, but also the pool of students that they admit. After enrollment, institutions must provide diversity, academic, and social supports to ensure healthy retention and successful completion.

Ohio’s Core Curriculum Graduation Requirements

There are specific academic requirements that all Ohio high school students must meet in order to graduate. According to the Ohio Department of Education’s website, (n.d.) there is a state minimum of 20 credits in specific subjects required for graduation. Table 1 provides a breakdown of the State’s course requirements for graduation.

Table 1: Ohio Core Curriculum Graduation Requirements
Subject Units Additional Information
English 4
Math 4 Including Algebra II or equivalent
Lab Science 3 Including biology, physical science, and one
year selected from advance biology, chemistry, physics, engineering science,
or biomedical science
Social Studies 3 Including American government and American
Health 1/2
Physical Education 1/2
Other 5 “a combination of 5 units to be chosen
from among foreign language, fine arts, business, career technical education,
family and consumer sciences, technology, agricultural education, or courses
in English, math, science, or social studies not otherwise required”
(Ohio Department of Education, n.d.)
Other N/A Receive “instruction” in financial
literacy and economics, and complete two semesters of fine arts classes

In order to evaluate the pipeline from K-12 to higher education, the authors analyzed the admissions criteria for seven Franklin County colleges and universities: Capital University (Capital), Columbus State Community College (CSCC), Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD), Franklin University (Franklin), Ohio Dominican University (ODU), The Ohio State University (Ohio State), and Otterbein University (Otterbein). The analysis identified similarities, but mostly significant differences, in admissions criteria. All seven colleges and universities require students to submit an application and a high school transcript when applying. Beyond these items are differences in curricular requirements, types of applications, ACT or SAT exam requirements, and other items.

Most colleges and universities do not emphasize curricular requirements for admission. Only Capital and Ohio State identify specific curricular expectations for their applicants. The Ohio Core provides students with a strong foundation for the types of classes that colleges expect as part of minimum curricular requirements for admission; the exception is at least two units of elective classes as foreign language courses. Students need to plan ahead to complete this work, as several colleges prefer two years of a foreign language. Differences in the types of applications, use of ACT/SAT scores, and admissions-related aspects such as holistic reviews, all varied by institution. Table 2 highlights some admissions differences. The clear set of expectations placed on Ohio high schools regarding specific subjects for graduation is a strong starting point for admission into a Franklin County college or university. Because most colleges are considering ACT/SAT scores, and some place emphasis on a holistic review of an applicant’s experiences, our K-12 system must provide opportunities for students to engage in academic and leadership development that will prepare them for the college experience.


Table 2: Franklin County Colleges and Universities Admissions Criteria
Institution Application Type ACT or SAT Required? Additional Information
Yes Listed
specific curricular requirements
College of Art and Design
Optional Needs
to submit portfolio for admission
State Community College
but may allow students to test out of placement tests
Dominican University
but if not submitted, students must submit additional information to prove potential of academic success in a college setting
review of application
Ohio State University
Application or Coalition Application
Yes Holistic
review of application; listed specific curricular requirements
Yes Holistic
review of application

While Ohio’s Core Curriculum is a good starting point for academic preparation into many of Franklin County’s colleges and universities, the holistic review process and use of the Common Application suggest that there is more to college admission than meeting minimum academic expectations. Recommendation letters, essays, co-curricular involvement in activities and leadership roles, and disclosure of disciplinary actions are some of the additional information that students include in the Common Application and other admissions applications. Without proper coaching by guidance counselors, mentors, or parents, students could miss the opportunity to build their portfolio of co-curricular experiences early into their high school experience and may consequently not understand the importance of a well-written essay, or a strong, positive, and descriptive recommendation letter. Last, the fact that some schools have an application fee could make the difference in whether a student applies to a particular institution.

Non-Academic Factors in the K-12 Pipeline

Although discrepancies exist between the admissions standards of post-secondary institutions and the offerings of Franklin County’s K-12 schools, there are other inequities to consider. While 69.9 in 1,000 Black students attending schools in the county are involved in a documented discipline incident, only 16.6 in 1,000 White students are (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2018) indicating a systemic issue in student discipline. Battiani, Bradshaw, and Mendelson (2016) found that in schools Diverse high school student working on math project with teacherwhere Black students were suspended more often than their White peers, Black students had negative perceptions of equality and belonging, indicators associated with academic achievement. The Common Application, used by several Franklin County institutions, requires students to answer whether they have been subject to disciplinary action at any educational institution, prompting additional screening if applicants respond affirmatively (Graves, February 19, 2018). Given inequities in discipline and its effect on academic success, this step in the review process provides an additional level of scrutiny that disproportionately impacts marginalized students.

Addressing Varying Institutional Needs

The K-12 system has a responsibility to address issues of inequity, but should exercise caution in applying approaches that might not transfer between schools. For example, the role of the guidance counselor is significant in promoting college-going behaviors and counselor practices should vary by school characteristics. Stephan (2013) shows how an approach designed for a middle-class school must be adapted to serve students in an economically disadvantaged school, thereby increasing the rate of students completing college-going actions.

The Effect of Socialization on Attending College

While there are practices that high schools should revisit to make college more accessible, they must also recognize the limits of their direct effect, and acknowledge the influence that families, peers, and communities have on students’ college-going behaviors. Palardy (2013) found that students attending a high school with an overall higher socioeconomic status were 68% more likely to attend college than those from a high school of a lower socioeconomic status, regardless of individual financial characteristics. He concludes that school integration would be the most effective remedy to equalize peer influence, but also stresses the demonstrated value of academics as a strategy for schools. Socioeconomic status of students does not fully explain gaps in college-going behaviors, and neither does race. Cosa and Alexander (2007) found middle-class Black students were often out-performed by White peers with similar financial resources. Ryan (2017) identified a similar trend when comparing the college-going rates of Hispanic and White students with comparable financial resources and educational experiences. Both identify socialization as reasons students are attending college at a lower rate, though Cosa and Alexander attribute this to social pressures from home and less established middle-class status. Ryan reports that social capital plays a large role in how Hispanic families promote college-going behaviors. If schools in Franklin County hope to create more equity in the pipeline to higher education, they need to focus on more than what and how they teach, but also on how they engage with the larger community to help students and families understand and establish the social capital to attend college and succeed.


Many factors contribute to inequities in the K-12 pipeline to higher education. Rigorous academic environments that include access to programs intended to bridge the gap, including AP and dual-enrollment, can be beneficial. However, their presence alone does not ensure equity. Without adequate and ongoing teacher preparation to ensure that these programs are of high quality and give attention to specific demographic needs, such as those of English Language Learners, students may not gain advantages through participation in these programs. Standardized tests such as the OGT are biased towards schools with higher student attendance, and despite colleges claiming to move towards a holistic review process, ACT and SAT outcomes are still used as college admissions criteria that may prevent high school students from Franklin County from being competitive for college enrollment. While Ohio’s Core Curriculum provides a good foundation for the minimum criteria needed for college attendance in Franklin County, students need to be savvy enough to take courses beyond the requirements for foreign language in order to be competitive for some institutions. Further, the variance in incoming expectations by college institution may make navigating the admissions process particularly challenging for some students. Finally, while attending to academic and curricular expectations is integral to increasing equity in the K-12 pipeline in Franklin County, inequities exist beyond the classroom walls. Unfairly handling student conduct issues, inaccurately assuming an effective approach in one school will translate to another without considering student demographics, and ignoring the peer and community effect on socialization around attending college all create further stratifications between the Franklin County high school students who have access to higher education and those who do not. The remedy for inequity in college access requires a broad approach that considers the academic and social preparation of students, and with an awareness of larger societal contexts.


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