Education Quality and College Success: NBER's Study of High-Achieving Students From Low-Performing High Schools

Education Quality and College Success: NBER's Study of High-Achieving Students From Low-Performing High Schools
Monica Fuglei February 25, 2014

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How High School Quality Impacts College Success

The rollout of Common Core has everyone atwitter about the long-term payoff of education quality. At the same time, colleges desire a diverse student body that includes students from underserved areas and populations. However, even high-performing high school students tend to struggle as college freshman if they attended K-12 schools whose lack of resources, funding and opportunity lowered the overall quality of education.

The NBER studies UT Austin’s “10 percent” program: Does high school quality predict college success?

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) recently published “Can You Leave High School Behind?,” a study of the University of Texas at Austin’s “10 percent” program, which offers automatic admission to UT Austin to every Texas student ranked in the top 10 percent of his or her graduating class.

The study suggests that diversity recruitment efforts may backfire if struggling students are not offered support when they enter college and poorly-performing schools are not encouraged to better prepare their students for higher learning. It found a predictive relationship between high school quality and a student’s performance in college, citing a “20 percent variation in high school grades, and that variation is not substantially reduced in the years that follow.” The study concludes that the “influence of high school lasts well beyond graduation,” and that high school quality matters.

Educational quality matters, starting as early as pre-reading years

The solution to college performance problems for at-risk populations lies in addressing the policies that impact education prior to college. Actions to transform and enhance education should not just focus on poor-performing high schools; they must examine middle and elementary schools as well as the need for universal pre-K. Differences in educational quality start as early as the pre-reading years and can lead to significant and lasting obstacles to higher education gains.

Eliminating education gaps is imperative at several levels

At the same time, colleges that cast a wide net for their student populations should recognize and provide supplementation and support for entering students. Working to close the educational gaps apparent at the freshman level with developmental reading and writing programs, student and professional tutors, and other student-support services can assist the long-term success of a diverse student body that persists until graduation.

The NBER’s “Can You Leave High School Behind?” contains valuable lessons for educators and administrators in K-12 schools, but should also be considered by teachers and administrators at the college level. If socioeconomic diversity in higher education is valued, at-risk schools must provide the best possible education to students before they enter college.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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