Formula for college success: High school rigor and good advice

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).

The Center for Public Education latest report “High school rigor and academic advising: Setting up students to succeed” analyzed longitudinal data tracking high school sophomores in 2002 through their second year in two- and four-year colleges in 2006 (ELS 2002-2006). They 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.

* Academic advising: For students in both two-year and four-year institutions, talking to an academic advisor in college either “sometimes” or “often” significantly improved their chances of persisting. Students in two-year institutions increased their chances of staying on track by as much as 53 percent just by meeting frequently with their academic advisor.

* High-level mathematics: At four-year institutions, lower-income students who began high school with below average achievement were 22 percent more likely to persist if they had taken Pre-calculus or Calculus instead of only completing math up to Algebra II. For similar students in two-year institutions, their chances of persisting increased by 27 percent.

* Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate courses: Taking an AP/IB course had a dramatic effect on students’ chances of persisting even when students fail the end-of-course test. Low achieving and low-income students who took an AP/IB course were 18 percent more likely to persist in four-year colleges and 30 percent more likely to persist in two-year colleges. The more courses a student took, the higher their persistence rates.

Other high school factors also impacted students’ persistence rates in college, including grade point average and the amount of time spent on homework in high school.
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