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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Students shouldn't settle for less in a college: Thousands of bright, qualified students apply only to lower-ranked schools where their grades and tests scores are above those of the average student. But the new study finds that those who attend such "safety" schools are far more likely to drop out than those who get into "reach" schools. "It is counterintuitive," Bowen says. "You might think that if Sally goes to a school where she is top dog, she will have a much easier time graduating. But that's not true. She has a better chance of graduating if she goes to school with other people as talented as she is."

Admissions tests don't predict graduation: SAT and ACT test scores are no help in predicting who will graduate from many, if not most, colleges. The widely used tests do help identify those likely to succeed at elite schools, the study found. But for many less selective colleges, students with higher scores were actually more likely to drop out. Representatives for the testing organizations noted that the tests are designed to—and do—predict college freshmen's grades, not college graduation. "We would be the first to acknowledge that the tests are not a perfect prediction," says Jon Erickson, vice president of the organization that runs the ACT. But Erickson argues that standardized test scores are helpful because, for example, they allow college admission officers to account for grade inflation at different high schools.

True achievement tests are useful indicators: Advanced Placement scores tell colleges more about a student's ability to complete college than other tests, the study found. Advanced Placement courses directly match the curriculum for entry-level college courses, and, at many universities, students can earn credit hours for high scores on AP tests.

B minuses aren't good enough: The new research confirms other findings that students who earn at least a 3.0 grade-point average are far more likely to graduate from college than students just under that mark. At less selective colleges, for example, 58 percent of students who entered with a 3.0 to 3.3 GPA graduated, compared with only 47 percent of sub-B students. The gap was even bigger at more selective colleges. "High school grades are tremendously important. It will not do for high school students to believe that 'just getting through' is enough," Bowen says. "You've got to work. You've got to pay your dues. You've got to achieve. If you do, you will succeed."

Today's community colleges are not the best solution: Bright, well-prepared community college students are 36 percent less likely to make it through to a bachelor's than similarly qualified students who start their degrees at four-year schools. Bowen realizes that message is likely to rile politicians and students who are hoping to use community colleges to save money in this economy but notes that his findings confirm those of others: "It is pretty hard to argue with the data . . . . If you want a bachelor's and you can start out at a good four-year institution, that is what you should do."

Why do community college students fall by the educational wayside so often? Other research has shown the influence of motivated and challenging peers, who are not always present in community college classrooms. Many community college students also have complained over the years about the failure of their schools to direct them to classes that will count as transfer credits. In addition, Bowen says many students are probably put off by complicated transfer processes.

Spokesmen for community colleges were distressed by the findings. "Community college officials are acutely aware that they must do more to maximize the number of students who graduate; it's a huge and growing concern," says David Baime, the American Association of Community Colleges' vice president for government relations. But Baime says much of the problem is caused by "the utterly unjustifiable practices of many four-year institutions that prevent would-be community college transfers from enrolling with appropriate credit."