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College Persistence Linked to Rigorous Courses and Academic Advising

New research suggests that if schools can figure out how to keep college freshman on track, the nation could be well on its path to meeting President Obama's 2020 goal of leading the world in producing college graduates.

A study released Thursday finds the answer is linked to higher levels of math in high school, more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and good college advising. And those factors hold regardless of student's socioeconomic status.

The research by Kasey Klepfer and Jim Hull at the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association focused on freshman-to-sophomore persistence rates, since college students are more likely to drop out their first year than any other. And with graduation rates hovering around 58 percent at four-year colleges and 33 percent at community colleges, educators are eager to learn how to get more students to the finish line.

"High School Rigor and Good Advice: Setting up Students to Succeed"
a nationally representative sample of more than 9,000 high school sophomores in 2002 through their second year in college, both two- and four-year institutions, and discovered three factors related to students' chances of success:

  1. High-level mathematics: Taking Pe-calculus, Calculus or math above Algebra II gave student from a high socioeconomic status (SES) a 10 percent better chance of persisting at a four-year college and improved the odds by 22 percent for those from a low SES.
  2. Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate courses: The study found the more of these courses a student took, the higher their persistence rates were. This was especially true for low-achieving and low-SES students. They got an 18 percent boost in success at four-year colleges and a 30 percent boost at two-year schools if they enrolled in these classes. "It is surprising that we find that simply taking an AP/IB course in any subject improved persistence in college, and that whether a student passes a test for that course isn't as important," the report noted.
  3. Academic advising: Talking to an academic adviser in college either "sometimes" or "often" significantly improved persistence rates as much as 53 percent for low-income students at four-year colleges and 43 percent at two-year schools.

The report encourages school leaders to help by making sure data is being collected on high school graduates' performance in college, offering rigorous curriculum to all students in high school, and supporting academic counseling.

"The lesson to colleges here is clear: policies to encourage these relationships can go a long way toward making sure students are on pace to earn a degree," the report said. "But we also believe that academic advising can be a great benefit when it starts earlier. Middle and high schools need enough counselors to monitor student progress so they can make sure all students are taking rigorous courses and have the support they need to be successful in them."

Taking these suggestions can improve persistence and move the college completion agenda forward, the report suggests.

If 90 percent of current freshmen persisted to graduation, there would be an additional 3.8 million graduates by 2020. And if graduation rates increased to 60 percent for two-year institutions and 90 percent for four-year institutions, they would produce an additional 6.6 million graduates by 2020—enough to meet the labor market's needs in this decade as well as the President's 2020 goal, the report noted.

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