Information Brief 96-1

Academic Choices: Increasing Ethnic Minority Students' Chances for Success in College

Many complex factors can affect students' chances for success in college. Educational preparation, student motivation, family support, school resources, and school environment are all very important. Unfortunately, many students, particularly ethnic minority students, are disadvantaged with respect to many of these factors. Further more, individual students cannot easily change some of these factors. However, are there choices that all students, including ethnic minority students, can make that will result in their being better prepared for college? We believe the answer to this question is definitely yes.

ACT's research, done over many years and in many situations, shows that students who take college-preparatory courses and earn high grades are more likely to be successful in college than those who do not, regardless of their ethnic background. However, ethnic minority students are less likely than other students to take college-preparatory courses in high school and to earn high grades in them.

High School Academic Preparation

High school course work and grades are familiar indicators of students' academic preparation. Many college-bound students do not take enough college-preparatory course work in high school to be successful in college. Our research suggests that students should take at least four years of English and three years each of mathematics, social studies, and natural science.

FIGURE 1. Percentage Taking College Preparatory Course Work by Ethnicity

FIGURE 1. Percentage Taking College Preparatory Course Work by Ethnicity

As shown in Figure 1, 55% of 1994–95 ACT-tested African-Americans and Mexican Americans, 59% of Caucasian-Americans and Hispanics, and 71% of Asian-Americans took sufficient college-preparatory course work. Furthermore, as shown in Figure 2, about 40% of ACT-tested African-American students, two-thirds of Caucasian-Americans, and three-fourths of Asian-Americans had high school GPAs of 3.0 or higher.

FIGURE 2. High School GPA by Ethnicity

FIGURE 2. High School GPA by Ethnicity

Note: Of 1995 ACT-tested students, 9% were African-American, 1% were American Indian/Alaskan Native, 69% were Caucasian American, and 3% each were Asian American, Mexican-American, and Hispanic.

ACT Score Performance

The ACT Assessment is a curriculum-based test. It is intended to measure knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in college and that are taught in typical high school college-preparatory programs. Therefore, ACT scores are useful indicators of students' preparedness for college. Almost all U. S. postsecondary institutions accept ACT scores for admissions and/or placement.

Students' average scores on the ACT Assessment follow the same trend as their high school grade averages and course work taken. The average ACT Composite score for 1994–95 ACT-tested high school students was 17.1 for African-Americans, 18.6 for Mexican-Americans, 18.7 for Hispanics, 21.5 for Caucasian-Americans, and 21.6 for Asian Americans.

High school course work and grades are strongly related to performance on the ACT Assessment, and thus to student success in college. For example, course work and grades in English, mathematics, and natural science count for 44% of the variation in students' ACT Composite scores, whatever students' ethnicity. ACT Composite scores of students who take sufficient college-preparatory course work are typically 2.5 to 3 score points higher than those of students who do not take this level of course work, whatever their race/ethnicity. These facts suggest that by taking more college preparatory courses and by working hard in these courses, ethnic minority students increase their chances of success in college, as reflected in their higher ACT scores.

Students' Needs for Academic Help

Students' self-reports of their needs for educational help (for example, needs for help in reading comprehension, mathematics, writing skills, etc.) and of their expected performance in college are related to their ACT score performance, and thus to their success in college. Typically, students with greater needs for help have lower ACT scores, and students with higher expected college GPAs have higher ACT scores. Most students seem to have a good understanding of their needs for help. With this knowledge, they should seek out academic assistance in areas of need before they graduate, thus increasing the likelihood of their success in college. Counselors can also help students identify their needs for help and understand the relationships between academic preparation and success in college.

Other Factors

The factors most strongly related to ACT scores, and thus to performance in college, are students' course work taken and grades earned in high school, regardless of their ethnic group membership. Students' chances of success in college are also influenced by factors in both their home and school environments. This does not mean, however, that attending a certain high school or college, or having certain family characteristics, will cause a student to obtain a low or high ACT score or to be successful in college.

High schools across the U.S. differ in the types and quality of courses they offer. They also differ in environment and the quality of instruction and support given to students by teachers, counselors, and administrators. As a result, two students may take the same course work from two different high schools, but because one school has less effective teachers and counselors and limited educational support, the student attending this school is less likely than the other student to do as well on the ACT Assessment or to be successful in college.

Students' family environments differ in many ways that also affect student achievement. These include the values parents hold about education and work, whether students have access to books and other educational materials at home, and the students' plans for college and career. Students with parents or siblings who have had successful college experiences, and students who want to be successful in college and are willing to work hard to be successful, are more likely to be successful than are other students.

Factors at college also seem to influence the college success of ethnic minority students.These factors include conditions such as the amount of social support they have on-campus from their friends, and the academic support they receive from faculty and staff. Further research on these issues will help college students, faculty, and stafflearn how these conditions can be used to best support students and to help them to be successful.


Some ethnic minority students are well-prepared for success in college. Unfortunately, a large number of them are less well-prepared than are students from other ethnic groups. These students are less likely to take the appropriate college-preparatory course work, to attain high grades in their high school courses, and to have high ACT scores

School and other environmental factors over which students have no control play a large role in ethnic minority students' preparation for college. There are, however, things students can do, with the help of their parents, counselors, and teachers, to increase their individual chances of success in college. Students who take college-preparatory courses in high school, particularly in mathematics and science, and who earn high grades in these courses, are more likely to succeed in college, regardless of their backgrounds.