Which High School Students Are Most Likely to Graduate From College?

A study finds surprising evidence about which students are really on the path to a college degree.

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Parents: Stop fretting so much about which high school your youngsters attend or how they score on the SATs. If you want your student to make it to a bachelor's degree, it's far more important for him or her to earn at least B's in high school and reach for the best possible college. Oh, and saving a few thousand bucks by sending your kid to a community college could turn out to be an expensive mistake.

Some of the nation's best-respected educational researchers are likely to reconsider much conventional wisdom today with the release of surprising findings from an analysis of educational records of more than 200,000 freshmen who started at public four-year colleges in 1999.

In the new "Crossing the Finish Line," William Bowen, a former president of Princeton University, argues that so many undergrads are dropping out (44 percent) that the country is in danger of losing its competitive edge to other nations.

He and coauthor Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester College, warn that America is likely to fall even further behind in the educational race because coming crops of high schoolers are filled with the kinds of low-income and minority students who tend to have the least educational success. In fact, despite billions of dollars in financial aid and scores of government and private efforts, the college graduation rate for low-income Americans who are the first in their families to go to college has been falling. "We're not doing as good a job as we should of creating genuine opportunity. We haven't continued to make progress the way other places have," Bowen said in an interview. (Harvard doctoral candidate Matthew Chingos also contributed to the book.)

The new research finds distressing signs that demographic factors such as gender, race, and parental education play large roles in determining a student's fate, no matter how smart or hardworking the particular student is. Those from families with below-average earnings or parents who didn't finish college, as well as African-Americans, Hispanics, and males, are failing college at disproportionate rates, even when compared with students with similar grades and test scores. Wealthy undergrads earn 11 percent more degrees from flagship universities than comparable students from the poorest income quartile, for example. White men are 6 percent more likely to graduate than black men with similar grades and scores. Women earn degrees at much higher rates than men. Failing to open educational opportunities to all students will endanger "the long-term health of our country," the authors warn.

Their findings about the actions that parents, students, and politicians should—and shouldn't—take to fix the problems are already sparking controversy:

High school grades are key: High school grades are the single best gauge of how well a student will do in college, no matter how "easy" or "tough" the high school's grading system is. "High school grades measure a student's ability to 'get it done' in a more powerful way than do SAT scores. . . . They reveal qualities of motivation and perseverance—as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills—that tell us a great deal about the chances that a student will complete a college program," Bowen writes.

But the nature of the high school doesn't make much difference: The size, location, and racial mix of a student's high school don't appear to influence his or her ability earn a college degree, the study finds. Students who attend wealthier high schools do seem to enjoy a slight edge in enrolling in college. And elite high schools appear to help the very best students succeed at the most selective public universities. Interestingly, an analysis of eighth-grade reading and math test scores in North Carolina found that they were far more significant predictors of college enrollment than most other factors, including high school characteristics and student race. (The authors didn't research the correlation between eighth-grade test scores and college graduation, however.) That doesn't mean students or teachers should cram for eighth-grade tests, though, says coauthor McPherson. "The high scores identify students who study hard, pay attention, and do their best. It's these qualities that parents and teachers should aim to develop. And if they succeed in doing that, then those students are likely to do better in their eighth-grade tests and in later life," McPherson says.