The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School to College

Liam Julian

Clifford Adelman
U.S. Department of Education
February 2006

A college degree is a good predictor of economic success. In 2003, full-time workers with bachelor's degrees were paid an average salary 62 percent higher than full-time employees with only high school diplomas. Other studies show university grads succeeding in other ways, as well: they have lower smoking rates, for example, and are far less likely to be incarcerated. Adelman's study, which replicates an earlier Ed Department examination, reaches back to the K-12 system and seeks to identify the behaviors of secondary school students that lead to the completion of a bachelor's degree. It started with a sample of eighth graders in 1988 and tracked them through 2000. (The earlier study tracked the high school class of 1982 through the year 1993.) It "looks for the features of academic history that are realistically subject to change by institutions." Rather than worry about immutable characteristics such as socio-economic status, Toolbox Revisited is concerned with identifying how schools can revamp their policies and curricula to push more young people into the degree-earning ranks. Its major finding is that students who enter universities with strong academic backgrounds, and those who have taken challenging "Gateway" courses that count for college credit (like AP), are more likely to graduate with a postsecondary degree. Seventy-five percent of students in the class of 1992 who took Precalculus received bachelor's degrees, compared to only 7 percent of those who never advanced beyond Algebra I. Unfortunately, many high schools (especially those serving at-risk students) don't tend to offer these types of courses, or when they do, they don't encourage nearly enough students to tackle them. Another way high schools can help: Push students directly into college after graduation. Students who take "breaks" from school only increase the chance that they'll never return. Tragically, the study finds that students' academic expectations are irrelevant. Virtually everyone plans to go to college, but few students actually understand what it takes to get there. Isn't it time to stop debating whether we need to boost the rigor of the American high school and start acting? Initiatives such as the American Diploma Project and the State Scholars program-both of which are given a lift by the study-can lead the way. You can read this study here.

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