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Students' College GPAs Linked to Quality of Their High Schools

The quality of the high school a student attends is a strong predictor of his grades in the first year of college and beyond, according to a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Observed differences in high school quality explained approximately 20 percent of the variation in the GPAs of freshmen, says the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study found that high school characteristics affected performance of students from various backgrounds, but the impact was most pronounced for women and students from low-income families. Also, the effects did not diminish over time.

"Importantly, we find that the effects of high school on college performance persist at least through the junior year," the report says. "Although the effect of the individual dimensions of high school quality are small, the aggregate effect of multiple dimensions is meaningful."

The study, Can you Leave High School Behind? was authored by Sandra E. Black, Jane Arnold Lincove, Jenna Cullinane, Rachel Veron, all faculty at the University of Texas at Austin.

They looked closely at the effect of changed admissions policies in some states that are opening the doors of public universities to more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In Texas, a law passed in 1997 grants automatic admission to UT Austin to all students who graduate from a Texas public high school ranked in the top 10 percent of their class. The researchers examined whether the students from lower-performing schools had adequate preparation for the selective university.

To determine a high school's characteristics, the researchers used a public data set with information on campus and district-level student enrollment and demographics, staffing and financial resources, and student performance outcomes. At the school-level, they also looked at the percent of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch, racial composition, and the rate of student mobility.  Measures of school-level academic preparation for college included the proportion of students taking AP exams and the proportion taking the SAT.  Measures of school resources included average years of teacher experience and per pupil funding. Researchers then modeled the college performance of students from the same socioeconomic groups who attended better and worse high schools. They concluded that for students from a range of backgrounds, the high school can be the key factor in college success.

The researchers suggest that having top grades in high school is not be enough to make it in college, and that educators should consider interventions and supports in college targeted at students from low-performing high schools to help improve completion rates.

"Automatic admissions policies increase access to public universities, but do not directly influence high schools to implement programs that help graduates succeed in college," the paper says. "Universities offer many programs to overcome inequities among admitted students (such as mentoring programs, development education, peer supports, etc.), but lack tools to diagnose need and target interventions."

It adds: "The results of this study suggest that high school background does influence college academic performance and that students from schools with multiple sources of disadvantage are a likely target for interventions at college entry."

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