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One of the most pressing problems in American higher education is the high college dropout rate. Spending time in college without a degree to show for it means students will lose opportunities to work or cultivate skills elsewhere. College dropouts are also far more likely than graduates to default on their student loans. In many ways, dropping out of college is worse than not going to college at all.
Knowing which factors predict completion, and intervening accordingly, can save students and colleges a world of grief. That’s where a new report by Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute comes in. (The report was published through the American Enterprise Institute, my employer, but I had no involvement with its production.)
For obvious reasons, students who exhibit better academic preparation in high school are more likely to complete college. But “academic preparation” can mean different things. There are two primary ways to measure a student’s academic aptitude: scores on standardized tests such as the SAT, and grades in high school coursework.
The SAT and similar tests exist to account for differences in how high schools grade students. Some teachers feel pressured to give students high marks despite middling academic performance, a phenomenon known as grade inflation. Certain high schools may run more rigorous courses than others. As a result, an A-average GPA at one high school might be equivalent to a B+ at another.
As SAT scores are a more consistent indicator of aptitude, one might expect them to better predict a student’s chances of graduating college than high school GPA. But Chingos’ research shows exactly the opposite.
Using a sample of students who attended a group of less selective four-year public colleges and universities, Chingos calculates a student’s likelihood of graduation based on both her high school GPA and her SAT or ACT score. While better marks on both measures predict a better chance of completion, the relationship between high school GPA and graduation rates is by far the strongest.
For instance, a student with a high SAT score (above 1100) but a middling high school GPA (between 2.67 and 3.0) has an expected graduation rate of 39%. But students with the opposite credentials—mediocre SAT scores but high GPAs—graduate from college at a 62% rate.
Put another way, the expected graduation rate of a student with a given GPA doesn’t change very much depending on her SAT score. But the expected graduation rate of a student with a given SAT score varies tremendously depending on her GPA.
Given differences in grading standards across high schools, GPA may not provide a consistent measure of a student’s ability in mathematics, reading, and other subjects. But GPA usually captures whether a student consistently attends class and completes her assignments on time. Students need to cultivate these behaviors in order to succeed in college, and such good habits can lead to success even for students of modest academic ability.
“Students could in theory do well on a test even if they do not have the motivation and perseverance needed to achieve good grades,” notes Chingos. “It seems likely that the kinds of habits high school grades capture are more relevant for success in college than a score from a single test.”
To paraphrase various celebrities and motivational posters, most of life (and college) is just showing up.
Granted, colleges cannot rely solely on high school GPA as a proxy for likelihood of graduation, as there’s evidence that many high schools do artificially lift their students’ grades. Simply pumping up grades doesn’t boost a student’s preparation for college, so the SAT and other standardized tests are useful as a check on such grade inflation. But perhaps colleges looking to identify students at risk of dropping out should pay more attention to high school marks.
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