Do high school courses prepare kids for college?

As students and teachers settle back into school routines, thousands of high schoolers are getting their first taste of classes that are supposed to prepare them for college. Some of them are sitting in Advanced Placement courses, while others have enrolled in district-designed advanced courses. In general, most people seem to take it for granted that high school courses that are labeled “advanced” are an effective preparation tool for college. A new analysis out of Brookings calls the conventional wisdom into question.

At issue is whether high school courses impact college performance at all. The Brookings authors point to a 2009 review of college preparation from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) that found “low evidence” that academic preparation for college actually improved college classroom outcomes. Despite myriad college preparation methods reviewed, none of them—including advanced coursework like AP classes—was strongly predictive of college readiness.

The Brookings authors did some further analysis of their own on the impacts of high school course-taking. After examining a nationally representative database of U.S. students and controlling for academic, demographic, and individual-level variables, they found that, on average, advanced high school courses do little to prepare students to succeed in college courses.[1] Brookings also seems to have busted the myth that college students perform better in subjects that they first studied in high school. For example, students who took a year of high school economics earned a final grade in their college economics class that was only .03 points higher than students who had never taken the subject before—a “trivially small” difference that was true even between students who took the exact same college course.

These findings fly in the face of the common belief that taking certain high school classes is a vital part of college preparation. Brookings offers a few possible explanations, including that students are actually learning the “wrong” things in high school. Despite taking advanced courses, many students may not “sufficiently focus on the critical thinking commonly needed in college.” There is also the unfortunate possibility that students simply forget what they’ve learned, regardless of what kind of class they learned it in. Brookings’s analysis notes that the “very slight advantage from prior coursework” they detected could be explained by “the little information that is retained from high school.” The authors further note that, despite Common Core’s focus on nonfiction and argumentative writing, “at least some top universities doubt whether high schools have developed the capacity to train students for college-level writing.” As a result, some have refused to exempt students from entry-level writing requirements, even if they earned top scores on the AP English exam.

As for solutions, the Brookings authors recommend giving schools “more freedom to experiment with innovative and experimental courses that may be more useful to students in the long term.” This could mean career and technical education (which Ohio already does really well), but it could also include College Credit Plus (CCP). CCP is a relatively new program that offers students the chance to earn high school and college credit at the same time. All Ohio students are eligible to participate (provided that they have reached a college readiness benchmark), and students who choose to earn credits through a public college aren’t charged for tuition, textbooks, or fees.

Technically, CCP isn’t all that innovative—it’s merely a new and improved version of the dual enrollment of yesteryear. But given the Brookings findings, it’s worth questioning why we should push students to spend time (and money for test fees) to take an “advanced” preparation course that doesn’t add much value rather than an actual college course. The same is true for students taking AP courses for college credit: If the end goal is to earn college credit, why not skip the middleman—and the possibility that certain colleges won’t give credit for AP scores—and just take a real college class through CCP?

As it turns out, there are a few nuances to CCP that should force Ohio families to carefully weigh their options. First, CCP offers students three ways to earn college credit: by taking a course on a college campus, through a college course delivered at a student’s high school by a credentialed teacher, or via an online course. Unfortunately, the state currently has no oversight into the rigor of any of these three course pathways. It would be reasonable to assume that a class on a college campus is rigorous, but there are many who disagree. Until the state has some cold hard facts about student achievement and outcomes under CCP, it’s difficult to say that the program is a more rigorous option than typical college-prep courses.

Second, any college course that a student takes under CCP serves double transcript duty: An “A” on a student’s college transcript reflects an “A” on her high school transcript, and a failing grade in the college course will also result in a failing grade on the high school transcript. Advanced high school courses, on the other hand, impact only high school transcripts. For example, a student who doesn’t earn a high enough score on an AP test to obtain college credit (or earns a poor overall grade) doesn’t prematurely damage her college record; she just has to enroll in the class once on campus to receive credit. This is why the college readiness benchmark that’s currently mandatory for CCP participation is so crucial—it prevents academically unprepared students from damaging their college transcripts before they’re officially college students.

The bottom line is that the many college-prep pathways available to high schoolers—including College Credit Plus, Advanced Placement, career tech, and International Baccalaureate—offer different things for different students. While it’s important to carefully consider analyses that question the rigor and effectiveness of each program, it’s equally important to maintain several unique options for Buckeye students and families. Selecting which preparation pathway to follow should be like selecting a school—students and families should be empowered to choose the best fit.

NOTE: This piece has been revised from an earlier version—published under a different title—to better reflect the findings of the Brookings analysis.

[1] The authors note one exception: Students who take calculus “mildly” benefit from high school courses in the subject. This is most likely because calculus “is based on cumulative learning to a greater extent than other subjects.”


Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.