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High school rigor and good advice: Setting up students to succeed (At a glance)

The demand for workers with a college education is growing faster than the supply of graduates.  By 2018, we will have produced 3 million fewer college graduates than the labor market demands (Carnevale, 2010).  President Obama has further set a national goal to produce 8 million more graduates by 2020 in order to make the United States the world leader in college attainment.  

One way to get there is to prevent the students who enter college from leaving before they earn a credential. Results vary between institutions, but in 2009 only 57.8 percent of students attending four-year colleges graduated in less than six years, and just 32.9 percent of those in two-year institutions graduated in three years (Knapp, 2012).  But suppose 90 percent of our current freshmen persisted to a credential. That alone would produce an additional 3.8 million graduates by 2020 -- enough to meet the labor market’s needs in this decade and nearly halfway toward meeting the President’s goal.

Improving first to second year “persistence” rates in college is a good place to start because students are more likely to drop out their first year than any other (NCHEMS). Of all entering freshmen in 2004, 79 percent returned for the second year of college (ELS 2002-2006).  Students in two-year institutions fared worse, at only 64 percent (ELS 2002-2006).  

We analyzed longitudinal data tracking high school sophomores in 2002 through their second year in two- and four-year colleges in 2006 (ELS 2002-2006). We were able to identify three factors that were related to increasing a postsecondary students’ chances of staying on track to a credential as much as 53 percent, and the process begins in high school. Moreover, the impact of these factors is greatest for students who enter college as the least likely to succeed: students who began high school with below average achievement and below average socioeconomic status. 

What it takes to stay on track
  • High-level mathematics: Our findings comport with previous studies that show the highest level of math in high school can be one of the largest predictors of college success (Adelman 2006, Conley 2007). Our analysis found that a student with above average SES and achievement had a 10 percent better chance of persisting in a four-year institution if that student had taken Pre-calculus or Calculus or math above Algebra II.  Low SES/achievement students with high-level math were 22 percent more likely to persist.

    The impact is greatest for students in two-year institutions:  The persistence rates of students who took mathematics beyond Algebra II in high school increased by 18 percent for the higher SES/achievement group and 27 percent for the lower SES/achievement students. 
  • Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate courses:  Taking an AP/IB course had a dramatic effect on students’ chance of persisting even when students fail the end-of-course test. Low achieving and low SES students who took an AP/IB course were 17 percent more likely to persist in four-year colleges and 30 percent more likely to persist in two-year institutions. The more of these courses a student took, the higher their persistence rates were.  

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  • Academic advising:  For both four-year and two-year students, talking to an academic advisor in college either “sometimes” or “often” significantly improved their chances to persist. This relationship held true across all SES levels and prior achievement as well as for students in two- and four-year institutions.  

    Again, low SES/achievement students showed the most gains in persistence when they reported going to see an academic advisor in college.  In fact, four-year institution students who saw their academic advisor “often” instead of “never” were 53 percent more likely to persist.  Two-year postsecondary students increased their chances by 43 percent. 
 
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Other high school factors were also related to higher persistence rates in college. Although these did not have the same predictive value as the three just mentioned, it’s worth noting that students’ grade point average and the amount of time spent on homework in high school had a statistically significant impact on their likelihood of returning for their sophomore year in college. 

What these findings mean

There are many surprising findings in this report, but perhaps the most striking is that we were not forced to look at the extremes of socioeconomic status and academic achievement in order to see major differences in first year persistence. Rather we examined students in the 61-80th percentile in SES and 10th grade achievement, what we call the “high SES/achievement group,” and compared them to students in 21-40th percentile in SES and achievement, or the “low” group.  

The analysis also shows that rigor is important.  It is surprising that we find that simply taking an AP/IB course in any subject improved persistence in college, and that whether a student passes a test for that course isn’t as important.   AP/IB courses should not just be for the students with the highest academic achievement; this report shows that even students at the low end of academic achievement in their sophomore year benefit from AP courses, and show higher gains than the high academic achieving students. The same is true for math courses.  Taking a more challenging math course improved persistence more for students with lower prior academic achievement. 

The good news in this report is that it points to steps that schools can take to improve the success of their students in college.  A rigorous high school curriculum is important for college, and it is important for every type of student.  No matter the characteristic of students, their SES level, or how well they do in school, every student can benefit from challenging subject matter.  Far from setting them up to fail, rigorous curriculum is setting them up to succeed.  Encouraging or requiring students to take higher levels courses should be a goal of all schools as well as providing the support students need to do well in them.  

The other major finding is the importance of academic advising to student persistence. While the report only examined advising in post-secondary institutions, we believe that the finding also bolsters the case for academic counseling in high school to make sure all students are prepared for success. Some students may not think they are smart enough to take a challenging course. It is the job of high schools to let them know the benefits of taking the course and be confident that they can succeed. 

What school leaders can do

School boards play a large part in making sure that college success is a goal for their districts. There are several things they can do: 

  • Data collection: The first thing is to make sure that data is being collected on how well their graduates perform in college.  It is not sufficient to just get a student into college; students need the skills to continue and obtain a degree. Schools should also monitor middle- and high-school data to identify students who may be falling off the tracks toward high school graduation and college success so that effective interventions can be provided.
  • Rigorous curriculum: Schools need the resources to provide a curriculum like AP/IB courses to all students, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be through AP/IB.  Many schools districts have augmented their curriculum to make sure that there are courses that mirror the type of challenging courses that AP/IB provide.  School boards and school districts should consider the success of the AP/IB programs when designing their curriculum.  What is it about the AP/IB courses that help students persist?  Is there something that can be used in other courses?  
  • Academic counseling:  Possibly the most surprising finding was the strength of academic advising as a factor in persistence. College students who reported visiting with advisors frequently had a much greater likelihood of persisting than their peers who never did. The lesson to colleges here is clear: policies to encourage these relationships can go a long way toward making sure students are on pace to earn a degree. But we also believe that academic advising can be a great benefit when it starts earlier. Middle and high schools need enough counselors to monitor student progress so they can make sure all students are taking rigorous courses and have the support they need to be successful in them. Counselors also fill an important role in helping students plan for their futures after high school, including help choosing a post-secondary institution that best matches their goals, and navigating the college application and financial aid processes.  


Download the full report (PDF)




This summary is based on a study by Kasey Klepfer, an Archer Graduate Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, with the guidance of Jim Hull, senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association. The authors thank Michael Hurwitz, associate policy research scientist for the College Board, for his very thoughtful review of this paper. 

Posted: October, 11 2012

 © Center for Public Education 2012

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