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How tougher classes in high school can help kids make it through college

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But by providing details about how students from various achievement levels and socioeconomic backgrounds fare in college, NSBA’s study attempts to control for as many factors as possible in order to isolate elements that high schools can improve.

The study is based on data from more than 9,000 students who enrolled in college immediately after high school in the fall of 2004 – a sample that represents more than 2 million students nationwide.

Among the findings:

  • Higher-level math: Algebra II is the highest level of mandatory math in many high schools, Mr. Hull said. But if the high school students took pre-calculus or calculus, rather than stopping at Algebra II, their likelihood of staying in a four-year college past the first year (“persistence”) increased by a range of 10 to 22 percent (10 percent for students who already had above-average achievement and socioeconomic backgrounds and 22 percent for those who were below average). Persistence in two-year colleges was 18 to 27 percent higher.
  • AP/IB courses: Participation in these courses increased four-year students’ college persistence by 7 to 17 percent, again with the higher figure for students who had lower academic achievement prior to taking AP or IB. The impact in two-year colleges was 17 to 30 percent higher. The more of these courses they took, the more their likelihood to persist in college increased. “There are still some people out there who believe that providing students with a course that might be over their head might be detrimental to their academic success,” Hull said. “However, this study provides one strong indicator … that providing all students with a rigorous curriculum helps students succeed.”
  • Academic advising during the first year of college. The study found that 11 percent of four-year college students and 25 percent of two-year students had never talked with a college academic adviser. For four-year college students from lower-achieving, lower-socioeconomic backgrounds, those who saw an academic adviser often were 53 percent more likely to persist than those who saw one never. At two-year colleges, the difference was 43 percent. The need for investing in better advising trickles down to high schools, where the national ratio of students to guidance counselors is about 500 to 1, Hull says.
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