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.
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."
Cash helps but is not a cure-all: More generous scholarships, or lower net tuition prices, can boost graduation rates by 5 to 10 percent. But scholarships and true costs need to be communicated to parents far earlier than the current system's six-month lead, and much more clearly, the authors say. In addition, combining sufficient aid with extra support services for students and parents does even more to shepherd students through to graduation.
Some colleges are doing a much better job than others: Colleges where most students live on campus and schools that create "honors" groups and "learning communities" are far more successful at graduating students than other universities.
There is some hope: The graduation rate success of experiments such as the Posse program, which provides teams of 10 low-income and minority students at elite schools lots of scholarships, mentoring, counseling, and peer support, shows that "graduation rates can be increased substantially if enough resources—and creativity—are put to work," the authors say.
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