School & District Management

Study Links High School Courses With College Success

By Lynn Olson — June 02, 1999 4 min read
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The biggest factor in determining whether young people earn a bachelor’s degree is their participation in a strong academic curriculum in high school, according to a federal study scheduled to be released this week.

The completion of a solid academic core was more strongly correlated with a bachelor’s degree than high school test scores, grade point averages, or class rank, the study found.

Moreover, an intensive academic curriculum in high school had the strongest positive effect for African-American and Latino students.

Clifford Adelman studied the importance of an intensive high school curriculum.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

The report, “Answers in the Tool Box,” by Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational research and improvement, is based on data from a national cohort of students who were followed from the time they entered 10th grade in 1980 until roughly age 30 in 1993.

It strongly bolsters what many school reform advocates have been saying for years: One of the best ways to close the attainment gap between minority and nonminority students is to ensure that all young people complete a solid academic curriculum in high school.

For More Information

The full text of “Answers in the Tool Box” is scheduled to be available online later this month at www.ed.gov/pubs.

“It’s no longer sufficient just to talk about poverty and about race,” said Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based Education Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes higher academic achievement for all students. “There’s an achievement gap because poor and minority kids have not been placed in the kinds of rigorous courses in high school that build the skills they need for college and for work.”

The study found that by age 30, some 65 percent of high school graduates had attended some form of postsecondary education, and 40 percent had attended a four-year college. Of those, 63 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree.

Mathematics Is Key

A student’s race was not a significant predictor of whether a young person graduated from a four-year college, once other factors were taken into account, the study found. A student’s family income also had little effect after the first year of college.

In contrast, the level of mathematics that students studied in high school appeared to have the strongest continuing influence on whether they earned a bachelor’s degree.

“Finishing a mathematics course beyond the level of Algebra 2 more than doubles the odds that a kid will get a bachelor’s degree, and that’s controlling for everything else,” Mr. Adelman said last week.

Based on his findings, he suggested that college-admissions formulas place less emphasis on test scores, GPAs, and class rank, and more stress on the courses students take while in high school.

The study used complex statistical analyses to determine which of 24 variables had the strongest influence on whether young people earned a bachelor’s degree.

The academic quality and intensity of the high school curriculum were measured on a graded scale. At the top of the scale were high school students who took: more than one Advanced Placement course; more than three years each of English and mathematics (including math beyond Algebra 2); a minimum of two years each of laboratory sciences, foreign languages, and history; and no remedial math or English courses.

Near the bottom of the scale were students who took only two years of math (including a remedial math course) and only one year of science.

Students from the lowest income groups who had high test scores, grade point averages, and a strong academic core were more likely to earn a degree than the majority of students from the top income groups, Mr. Adelman found.

Mobile Students

Another significant finding was a sharp jump in the proportion of undergraduates who attend more than one institution.

That figure swelled from 40 percent during the 1970s to 54 percent during the 1980s. Based on the most recent data, Mr. Adelman suggests, it will easily surpass 60 percent by next year.

The number of postsecondary institutions students attended had no negative effect on whether they eventually earned a bachelor’s degree, he found.

For example, students who attended a community college for at least one semester and then transferred to a four-year institution had a graduation rate of 71 percent, which is higher than the average for those who started in four-year colleges.

In contrast, students’ continuous enrollment in higher education after they started had a very strong effect, surpassed only by the combination of their academic preparation and performance while in high school. Keeping students enrolled, even for one course a term, was critical in their eventually earning a degree, Mr. Adelman said.

Based on the data, he suggests that it no longer makes sense to judge colleges by their graduation rates.

“It’s nonsense,” he argued. “Given the multi-institutional attendance patterns that have grown up over the past 20 years--students attending two or three schools, 40 percent of them crossing state lines in the process--institutional graduation rates don’t mean much anymore.”

The study also found that students who took remedial reading classes in college were far less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who took other types of remedial coursework, such as math.

Though many states are trying to reduce or eliminate the number of remedial courses students take in college, Mr. Adelman suggests that some deficiencies can be easily remedied without damaging a student’s chances of graduating.

Mr. Adelman now hopes to follow the college careers of a new group of students to see whether his findings hold up. “We have a new cohort that graduated from high school in 1992. We’re interviewing them in the year 2000, and we hope to get their college transcripts in the year 2001,” he said, “and then we’ll see whether this story has changed.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 1999 edition of Education Week as Study Links High School Courses With College Success

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