More Rigorous High School Courses Raise College Grad Rates

A study from the National Schools Boards Association shows that a tougher high school curriculum could reduce the percentage of four-year college students who fail to graduate in six years. Currently, about 40% of four-year college students fall into that category, while the rates of students who fail to earn a degree in a timely [...]

A study from the National Schools Boards Association shows that a tougher high school curriculum could reduce the percentage of four-year college students who fail to graduate in six years.

Currently, about 40% of four-year college students fall into that category, while the rates of students who fail to earn a degree in a timely manner from a community college are even higher. According to the NSBA study, most of that problem stems from the fact that high schools fail to prepare students for the rigor of college-level academic work. Therefore, adding more advanced math courses, college-level classes like those in the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs and better targeted academic advising could do much to help future college students succeed.

One of the most notable findings was that students didn’t even need to perform well in those kinds of high school courses for them to receive the positive effect. Even those who didn’t receive top grades still went on to perform better in college and were more likely to graduate than their peers who didn’t take any advanced courses at all.

The findings don’t provide a silver bullet for school districts – many of which are still debating whether to make higher math mandatory or to open up college-level AP courses to all students who are interested.

“There’s certainly a big correlation between students in high school who take advanced math and [those who] do well in college, but correlation is not cause and effect; it could very well be that the people whose future destiny is to do well in college also are good at doing math,” says David Klein, a math professor at California State University at Northridge who has studied AP math courses and found many of them to lack quality when compared with college courses.

However, the NSBA researchers attempted to control for as many factors – including income and academic level – as possible in order to make the cause-and-effect relationship more clear. The study looked at data from over 9,000 students who first enrolled in college in 2004 immediately after graduating high school.

The findings clearly show that a more rigorous curriculum not only increased students’ odds of graduating, but also increased their “persistence” – chance that they will continue in their studies past the first year of a four-year college.

Taking advanced math courses, including pre-calculus and Calculus I, led to a “persistence” increase of between 10% and 22%, with the lower bound applicable to high-achieving students, while the 22% increase shows the benefit that lower-achieving students could gain from taking a challenging math class in high school. Similar gains were observed in students who took AP or IB courses in high school. Four-year persistence went up by 7-17% for students attending four-year colleges, and by up to 30% for those attending a two-year program.

The impact in two-year colleges was 17 to 30 percent higher. The more of these courses they took, the more their likelihood to persist in college increased. “There are still some people out there who believe that providing students with a course that might be over their head might be detrimental to their academic success,” Hull said. “However, this study provides one strong indicator … that providing all students with a rigorous curriculum helps students succeed.”

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