December 2007
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High-Achieving, Low-Income Students: The Achievement Trap

There are about 3.4 million low-income, high-achieving students in America’s K-12 schools. These students are defined as those who score in the top 25 percent on national standardized exams and have a family income (adjusted for family size) below the national median. But such students are less likely to graduate from high school, to attend college, and to graduate from college than their higher-income high-achieving peers. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation investigated this population in a study called The Achievement Trap: How America is Failing Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families.

The report analyzed data from three federal databases that have tracked students for at least 20 years—the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, the National Education Longitudinal Study, and the Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study. Overall, the report determined that while lower-income, high-achieving students mirror America demographically when they enter school (in terms of race, gender, and rural/urban/suburban residence), only 28 percent of first-grade high achievers are from lower-income families. Lower-income students continue to lose ground in elementary and high school, as well as in the percentages of students attending and graduating from college. High-achieving lower-income students who do attend college are less likely to attend selective schools and are less likely to go on to graduate school than their higher-income peers.

The report concludes that America’s national struggle to improve poor achievement among low-income students has overshadowed the equally important goal of promoting high achievement among the same population. High-achieving, lower-income students are undernurtured in America’s elementary schools, high schools, and colleges, and thereby miss out on both the opportunities higher education offers and the contributions to society that they could make.


Achievement Disparities, Pre-College

  • In first grade, 72 percent of high achievers come from higher-income families, while 28 percent came from lower-income families.
  • In high school, higher-income students are more likely than lower-income peers both to remain in the top academic quartile for mathematics (84 percent versus 75 percent) and to move into the top academic quartile for mathematics (10 percent versus 4 percent).
  • Higher-income high-achieving high school students are more likely than lower-income high-achieving peers to graduate from high school (97 percent versus 93 percent). However, both groups graduate at rates far higher than the national average (70 percent)

College and Graduate School Completion

  • While higher-income and lower-income high achievers enter college at relatively similar rates (98 percent and 93 percent, respectively), lower-income students are less likely to graduate from college (59 percent) than their higher-income peers (77 percent).
  • For high-achieving lower-income students, graduation rates steadily drop (from 90 percent down to 56 percent) as college selectivity decreases. Conversely, 80 percent of high-achieving higher-income students graduate regardless of the selectivity of their college.
  • Lower-income high-achieving students are much less likely to complete an advanced degree (MA, PhD or professional degree) than higher-income high achievers (29 percent versus 47 percent).


The entire report may be downloaded from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Web site.




  • Among high-achieving twelfth-graders, 77 percent of higher-income students will graduate from college, while only 59 percent of their lower-income high-achieving peers are likely to earn a baccalaureate degree.
  • Twenty-one percent of high-achieving, lower-income students attend one of the nation’s 429 least-selective colleges, compared with only 14 percent of their higher-income high-achieving peers.
  • At the least-selective colleges, 83 percent of higher-income high achievers graduate, compared with 56 percent of lower-income high achievers.