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Transitions to College: An In-Depth Look at the Selected Influences of Demographics, Development, and Policy

by Margaret Terry Orr - 2009

This article provides an overview of a set of articles in this special issue that synthesize current research and provide future directions for research, both conceptually and methodologically, on gender, socioeconomic, and language-minority differences in college transitions, as well as a review of college transitions research in the discipline of human development. It concludes with an example of policy analysis research on college transitions, focusing on 2-year to 4-year college articulation policies. These reviews provide a foundation for further research, policy making, and programmatic action to improve the college transition pathways for all youth, particularly those for whom college-going opportunities are most challenging because of demographic and economic conditions.


Improving access to college for all adolescents has become a national priority shared by public and private sectors alike. Economic and demographic research consistently projects that future economic opportunities and prosperity require current high school graduates to earn at least a 2-year or 4-year college education. According to Kirsch, Braun, Yamamoto, and Sum (2007), America faces a “perfect storm” in the confluence of current demographic, achievement, and economic indicators. These three change forces are: (1) the wide disparity in literacy and numeracy proficiency among youth and adults, with only about a 70% high school graduation rate and large racial/ethnic achievement gaps; (2) changes in our economy, with jobs requiring college-level education accounting for two thirds of the job growth and a widening gap in the economic returns to schooling and skills; and (3) that the American population is becoming older and more diverse on average, with international migration projected to account for more than half of our country’s population growth by 2015. Combined, the authors predict, older, better educated workers will be replaced by those with less education and skills, who in turn will be ill-equipped for the higher growth, higher skilled jobs (Kirsch et al.). The solutions lie in how we strengthen our educational policies and practices.

Yet, present discontinuities between our country’s secondary and postsecondary educational systems complicate research, policy, and action intended to increase college-going among all youth, particularly those most in need or at risk of not completing high school or advancing to college. Key areas of systems discontinuity center on academic competency expectations, guidance and support, and the means of tracking student progress from high school and into and through college. According to the Education Commission of the States, the goal is to create a P–16 education system that seamlessly links and coordinates each education level to better improve college preparation and success (Krueger, 2006). Although many states are now examining ways to align their systems, only a few have taken significant steps to align their systems to track student progress and are evaluating academic and social supports for college-going for all students throughout the P–16 system.

However, how well students, particularly those most at risk, are prepared academically and socially in high school determines their likelihood of future college success. The Pathways to College Network stresses that states, districts, schools, and college access programs must work together to foster high expectations for all children, ensure access to and participation in academically rigorous high school courses, and provide student and family social support. The network also stresses that these entities must make better use of data to inform programs and action and work toward better P–16 alignment (Pathways to College Network, 2004).

Several educational and policy-related strategies have been, and continue to be, developed to smooth the transition between high school completion and college-going and completion; these strategies center on improved academic preparation, college access strategies, and college support. Other strategies focus on increasing adolescents’ aspirations and readiness for college and their families’ role in supporting college-going. Some interventions focus on college access through improved information about college opportunities, whereas others focus on improving college financing through favorable scholarships, grants, and loans. Still others focus on mentoring, leadership development, and academic engagement to improve college aspirations and readiness (Orr, Alcantara, Frazier, Kalinka, & Kaplan, 2007). Other strategies focus on college retention through improved first-year support (including extended orientation and first-year programs), ongoing student support, mentoring, financial aid programs, and fostering student learning communities (Meyers, 2003).

In recent years, significant social science research has focused on this critical transition period in adolescent development and these students’ educational progress. Through a grant from the Lumina Foundation, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) convened scholars to synthesize the current state of research within and among fields as a means of framing current knowledge and understanding and providing future direction. This project, “Transitions to College: From Theory to Practice,” led to several publications, including a policy brief, Questions That Matter: Setting the Research Agenda on Access and Success in Postsecondary Education (Social Science Research Council, 2005), and a special journal issue of Teachers College Record that presented a series of discipline and field-based literature reviews on transitions to college research (Trent, Orr, Ranis, & Holdaway, 2007).

Throughout, the review work was framed around four topical areas—preparation, access, paying for college, and retention and success—with the intent of uncovering key gaps and areas for further literature review and synthesis. The work covered several core disciplines—anthropology, demography, economics, law, and sociology—and the field of higher education (Trent et al., 2007). Further disciplinary discussions and K–12 and higher education field reviews revealed the importance of understanding the transition to college developmentally. Although much research points to the importance of motivation and identifies formation as integral to college-going, a human development discipline review was missing.

Among the issues highlighted in this research and policy work was the “considerable demographic disparities in college enrollment and completion rates along the lines of race, socioeconomic status, gender and other important categories” (SSRC, 2005, p. 3). Moreover, traditionally, research on disadvantaged or underserved groups has lacked more fine-grained analyses of unique challenges or barriers faced by different subgroups within these categories. The results stressed that further inter- and intragroup comparisons are needed to better understand the impact of these demographic and economic qualities on college-going and completion. The research and policy work also highlighted the need to understand better how various solutions—such as transition policies between 2-year and 4-year institutions—are influencing college-going and completion outcomes among today’s youth. Questions That Matter (SSRC, 2005) stressed the need for well-designed evaluation research on policy and programmatic interventions to improve college-going rates, particularly among underserved groups.


After drawing together and synthesizing current research in the various disciplines on adolescent transitions into and through college, the SSRC commissioned a series of systematic analyses of particular topics, including investigations of college transition issues and trends by gender and by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Another essay examined the particular challenges facing undocumented immigrant and English language learner students in the transition to college. To consider how theories of human development might better inform programs that seek to support students through the transition to college, a paper was also commissioned on this subject. In addition to the commissioned articles, one other award, focusing on transfer from community colleges to 4-year colleges , was made as the result of a competitive selection process. Each author built on the prior work of the SSRC reviews and investigated his or her sector issues in greater depth. In addition, authors drew on existing theoretical and conceptual work (primarily from sociology) on how their sector has been investigated and ways to frame further research. All the articles in this special issue thus synthesize current research and provide future directions for research in their area, both conceptually and methodologically.

To support this phase of the program, SSRC invited five members of the original program committee—Luis Fraga (political science), David Mustard (economics), Margaret Terry Orr (K–12 education), Barbara Schneider (sociology), and William Trent (higher education)—to serve as advisors in structuring the reviews and providing feedback at two project workshops. Wendy Schwartz edited all the reviews for clarity and consistency. Jennifer Holdaway, SSRC, provided project oversight and, along with Margaret Orr, managed the editing process.


The first article, by Claudia Buchmann (2009) of The Ohio State University, is “Gender Inequalities in the Transition to College.” As its title suggests, this review synthesizes the historical trends and current issues in gender differences concerning college transitions. The article focuses on the current reversal, from male to female, in college entrance and completion rates generally, and the trends by race, socioeconomic status, and immigrant status. Up until 2000, young men were more likely to go to college than were young women; now, 66% of women, compared with 60% of men, enroll in college immediately after high school. The article then explores individual and institutional explanations for both changing and stable patterns in male and female college transitions. Across socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic groups, young women are enrolling and persisting in college at greater rates than men. Among the explanations of these patterns uncovered by her review are the influences of family resources, labor market incentives, sociocultural changes in gender roles, and changing gender-related life course expectations.

The second article, by Eric Grodsky and Erika Jackson (2009) of the University of California–Davis, is “Social Stratification in Higher Education.” The authors address the broader issues of inequality and stratification and how these impact adolescents through college matriculation, persistence, and degree attainment. They focus explicitly on social stratification by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic origins. In their article, the authors review the financial and nonfinancial returns of a college education, variations in those returns, and trends in postsecondary participation and completion. They explore the utility of the dominant theories on social stratification in higher education: status attainment, rational choice theory, and reproduction theory. They find the field converging somewhat, however, noting that scholars from these different traditions now recognize the importance of the subjective assessments of students and their parents in the process of postsecondary stratification, and the relationship between social stratification and postsecondary information available to students and their parents. They propose a behavioral model that emphasizes individual and institutional reciprocity in the postsecondary attainment process: how students constrain colleges in the decisions they make, and how colleges constrain students in the decisions they make.

A third article, by Gloria M. Rodriguez and Lisceth Cruz (2009) of the University of California–Davis, explores the experiences of English language learners (ELLs) and undocumented immigrant students in the college-going process. In their article, “The Transition to College by English Learner and Undocumented Immigrant Students: Resource and Policy Implications,” Rodriguez and Cruz focus on the unique challenges that these students face in preparing for and enrolling in college, and the policy and programmatic options for higher education institutions, particularly in light of recent federal anti-immigrant policy debates. The authors draw on segmented assimilation theory—developed to explain immigrants’ social and economic integration into the United States by understanding family ties, community networks, and institutional responses—to shed light on immigrants’ educational transition experiences. Although ELL students and undocumented immigrant students are not synonymous groups, there are strong overlaps in their needs, challenges, and educational experiences. Rodriguez and Cruz highlight the experience differences that exist among immigrant groups and between immigrant generations, and how their lack of English proficiency limits their access to college preparatory coursework in high school, hindering future college-going opportunities. Moreover, such students are more likely to be in schools that divert them into less challenging academic tracks, limit their exposure to advanced learning in particular subjects, and offer limited interactions with knowledgeable adults who might assist in their college access.

The fourth article, by Douglas Guiffrida of the University of Rochester, fills the discipline-based gap found in the original reviews by framing current human development theory pertaining to adolescent college transitions. In this article, “Theories of Human Development That Enhance an Understanding of the College Transition Process,” Guiffrida identifies three primary human development theories: identity development, racial identity development, and intrinsic motivation. Within identity development, he shows the different forms of development addressed by theorists—including vocational choices, religious beliefs, political philosophy, and gender roles—and how the means and pacing of identity development are influenced by college participation. He explains how these theoretical perspectives can be used to understand how diverse developmental characteristics, developmental stages and tasks, and cultural backgrounds affect the college transition process. In particular, he synthesizes the research on how racial and ethnic identity development affects students’ academic achievement, attitudes, and self-efficacy, and its implications for college-going and persistence. He adds the theoretical work on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to evaluate students’ motivation in their college transition experiences. He draws together the implications in combining these human development perspectives by stressing that theories of intrinsic motivation and racial and ethnic identity formation help to explain differences in how students engage “with university and home social systems to fulfill their salient needs for autonomy, relatedness, competence, and extrinsic rewards during their college transitions.”

Finally, Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia provides an example of policy-focused research—in this case, the 2-year to 4-year college transition process. In her article, “Building Bridges for Student Success: Are Higher Education Articulation Policies Effective?” she explores the conceptual and methodological challenges of how to measure transfer success and evaluate policies aimed at facilitating the transition of students from community colleges to 4-year institutions. Although half of all college students attend community colleges, it is unclear which and how many want to transfer to a 4-year institution, and transfer rates vary widely based on institutions and programs of study. Evaluation of college transfer policies is hindered by the lack of common and useful definitions and inadequate longitudinal data across institutions. Nonetheless, as she notes, several individually and institutionally focused evaluation studies have been attempted; they yielded very different outcomes, as she illustrates by comparing policy outcomes state by state. At present, it is unclear what role, if any, articulation policies play in 2-year college students’ transition to 4-year institutions, but Roksa charts out where research and policy clarity are making gains in evaluating these relationships.


These reviews build on the initial work of the Social Science Research Council and its review committees. Both substantively and by example, these reviews provide a foundation for further research, policy making, and programmatic action to improve the college transition pathways for all youth, particularly those for whom college-going opportunities are most challenging because of demographic and economic conditions. To this end, these research reviews make more accessible a wide range of research in four key areas: in the demographic- and economic-related research on college-going for each of three demographic groupings—gender, socioeconomic status, and language minority status—and college transition research in the human development field. A fifth review models the synthesis of research on policies and practices by focusing on transition policies in depth.

The authors pose several implications for further research in this field—for more in-depth investigation in these areas and to investigate solutions. The authors agree across the demographic-based studies that each area masks greater complexity that warrants further research, particularly to understand college-going experience differences by gender and language status within subsectors of different racial/ethnic groups and countries of origin. They share recommendations on the form of further research, and they recommend cross-sectional comparative studies to establish methodology for longitudinal research and qualitative research of special subsectors to better understand how they negotiate pathways in higher education. Guiffrida (2009) adds to these recommendations by stressing applicability of current developments in  human development theory—which increasingly takes into account cultural differences and the role of cultural identity formation in the developmental process—in exploring subsector experiences in college-going.

The authors also share recommendations to focus further research on the institutions that make up the pathways into and through college, and the innovative solutions being tried to facilitate resilience and college success. As Rodriguez and Cruz (2009) assert, “a better conceptualization of institutional responsiveness to student needs at every level of the educational system would help to expand the literature relative to English learner and undocumented immigrant students.” Other authors agree, arguing for research on the nature of supports provided and, taking it a step further, initiating theory-based approaches to field experiments on college transitions for different sectors. As Grodsky and Jackson (2009) concluded, “We know little about the services that institutions provide or the degree to which their programs are effective in helping students attain a degree.”. The authors similarly argue for more research on the role of policies aimed at improving the college-going pathways, particularly for those sectors that are most challenged.

The authors’ attention to the quality of research in these undertakings is critical to the effectiveness of such research to inform policy and practice. Without quality research, policy making and programmatic interventions occur in a vacuum, uninformed by the realities of those meant to benefit. Roksa’s (2009) research review on transition policies illustrates this problem well. As she concludes about the state of research in informing transition policies, “surveying the transfer literature reveals the diversity of definitions, measurements, data, and analytical methods used that makes it virtually impossible to arrive at any coherent conclusions”. The solution to these problems, she and the other authors recommend, is improved coordination of research measures and data sets.

This set of articles provides a basis for framing discussions about such measurement and research coordination. It was the intention of the Social Science Research Council and its advisory committee to support this work to that end. These articles offer a useful foundation for these inquiries and for sounder policy and program development and research.


Buchmann, C. (2009). Gender inequalities in the transition to college. Teachers College Record, 111(10).

Grodsky, E., & Jackson, E. (2009). Social stratification in higher education. Teachers College Record, 111(10).

Guiffrida, D. A. (2009). Theories of human development that enhance an understanding of the college transition process. Teachers College Record, 111(10).

Kirsch, I., Braun, H., Yamamoto, K., & Sum, A. (2007). A perfect storm. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Krueger, C. (2006). The progress of P-16 collaboration in the states. Denver, CO: The Education Commission of the States.

Meyers, R. D. (2003). Annotated bibliography: Perspectives in postsecondary education programs and student support interventions. Washington, DC: Pathways to College Network Clearinghouse.

Orr, M. T., Alcantara, L., Frazier, F., Kalinka, C. J., & Kaplan, S. (2007). Boosters, brokers and bridges: Real-world ideas for college access programs. Indianapolis, IN: Lumina Foundation.

Pathways to College Network. (2004). A shared agenda: A leadership challenge to improve college access and success. Washington, DC: Author.

Rodriguez, G. M., & Cruz, L. (2009). The transition to college of English learner and undocumented immigrant students: Resource and policy implications. Teachers College Record, 111(10).

Roksa, J. (2009). Building bridges for student success: Are higher education articulation policies effective? Teachers College Record, 111(10).

Social Science Research Council. (2005). Questions that matter: Setting the research agenda on access and success in postsecondary education. New York: Author.

Trent, W., Orr, M. T., Ranis, S., & Holdaway, J. (2007). Transitions to college: Lessons from the disciplines. Teachers College Record, 109, 2207–2221.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 10, 2009, p. 2311-2319
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15712, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:22:48 AM

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About the Author
  • Margaret Orr
    Bank Street College of Education
    E-mail Author
    MARGARET TERRY ORR is on the faculty of Bank Street College of Education, where she directs a leadership preparation program in partnership with 18 school districts. Her research interests center on effective leadership preparation and adolescent transitions. She was the lead author on “Shaping Postsecondary Transitions: Influences of the National Academy Foundation Career Academy on Adolescent College Going” in D. Neumark (Ed.), Improving School-to-Work Transitions (Russell Sage), and coauthored Developing Effective Principals Through Collaborative Inquiry (Teachers College Press) with Monica Byrne-Jimenez.
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