Background/Context: English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing segment of the K–12 student population in the United States, yet they encounter substantial problems entering higher education. The gap between ELLs and non-ELLs is particularly acute for four-year college access. Research has been largely silent on ELLs’ college advancement, and we know little about what inhibits ELLs’ college access.
Purpose: To examine the process of ELLs’ college planning in order to determine which stages of college planning present difficulties to ELLs and why. College planning is conceptualized as consisting of five milestones: (a) aspiring to college, (b) acquiring college qualifications, (c) graduating from high school, (d) applying to college, and (e) enrolling in college.
Research Design: Secondary data analysis of the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002. Only students who participated in all of the first three waves (2002, 2004, and 2006) of data collection were included (N = 12,450). Students were divided into three language background groups: (a) ELLs, (b) English-proficient linguistic minority students (EPs), and (c) native speakers of English (NSs). We first compared the college-access patterns of the three language groups. We then mapped out each group’s pathways through the milestones. Finally, we conducted multigroup analyses to examine whether and to what extent a different set of predictors shape the groups’ college pathways.
Findings/Results: It is the early stages of college planning (aspirations and college qualifications stages) that are particularly challenging to ELLs, such that the majority of ELLs never reach the later milestone of applying to a four-year college. Predictors known to matter significantly for the general population’s college access are not all significant for ELLs.
Conclusions/Recommendations: In order to enable more ELLs to reach four-year colleges, we should make a targeted effort to support them in the early stages of college planning. Racial/ethnic minority ELLs are particularly vulnerable and need more support. We also need to invest more effort into identifying the factors and conditions that specifically influence ELLs’ college planning.