In coming weeks, high school seniors hoping to join the ranks of the Class of 2021 in colleges and universities across the country will receive the admissions decisions that will chart the course of their postsecondary educations, and their lives. Those decisions will not, however, seal their fate or guarantee success.
According to studies from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and America’s Promise Alliance, the full picture of what it takes to make it through college—not just to college—actually encompasses a complex set of factors at play and decision-making that begins in students’ high school careers.
Myth 1: ACT and SAT scores are the most important predictors of success in college.
Facts: While ACT/SAT scores matter for college access, grades (GPAs) are much more predictive of college success. In fact, strong grades—earning As and Bs in high school—are the strongest indicator of college readiness and are much more predictive of college graduation than any test score. Students with an ACT score of 21-23 have about a 50 percent chance of graduating from college if their high school GPA is between 2.5 and 2.9. Yet students with ACT scores in the same range of 21-23 but with high school GPAs between 3.0 and 3.4 graduate college at much higher rates of nearly 70 percent. Even research by ACT, Inc. and the College Board (which administers the SAT) indicates that high school GPA is more highly correlated with first-year college GPA than either ACT or SAT exam scores alone.
Myth 2: For highly qualified students, starting at a two-year college provides the same opportunity to a four-year degree as starting at a four-year college.
Facts: Students who are highly qualified for a four-year college have dramatically lower odds of degree completion if they start at a two-year college. In Chicago, only 8 percent of students who begin at a two-year college complete a bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating high school. In contrast, nearly 90 percent of students who attain a bachelor’s degree enroll in a four-year college directly after their senior year of high school. Thus, enrolling in a four-year college directly after high school remains the “surest path” to a bachelor’s degree.
Myth 3: As long as a student's grades are strong enough to graduate from high school, GPAs don't really matter.
Facts: Earning As and Bs matters for success in both high school and college. Strong grades are a sign that students are able to meet academic challenges, and are developing the skills they need to handle new academic challenges in the future. More than 95 percent of students with a B average or better their freshman year graduate from high school, compared to 72 percent of students with a C average and 28 percent of students with a D average. Students may be admitted to some colleges with less than a 3.0 GPA, but only students who enter college with a high school GPA of 3.0 or above have greater than a 50 percent chance of earning a four-year college degree within six years of graduating high school. In one recent study, just 27.6 percent of students with a 2.5 to 2.99 GPA (C), 12.4 percent of students with a 2.0 to 2.49 GPA, and 3.3 percent of students with a GPA less than 2.0 earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Myth 4: Students who really want to go to college will get there. If they have the will, they'll figure out the way.
Facts: There are significant postsecondary attainment gaps by gender, race, ethnicity, and income. The gaps persist, in large part, because of the “potholes” students face along the path to and through college, such as navigating a complex financial aid application process and sorting through college options to target their applications to schools that are a good match for their qualifications and have strong institutional graduation rates. Helping students overcome barriers like these can go a long way toward helping them succeed in college. For example, students accepted into a four-year college are 50 percent more likely to actually enroll in college if they have completed their federal financial aid application (FAFSA)—a process that the U.S. Department of Education and many districts have been working to streamline.
Myth 5: A student's odds of graduating college will be the same at any of the colleges he or she is admitted to.
Facts: Students of all qualification levels are more likely to graduate from college if they attend a post-secondary institution with a high institutional graduation rate. This is even true for students with strong grades in high school; in fact, college choice matters the most for students with strong academic qualifications. Ultimately, institutional graduation rates are just one factor to consider in making a good college choice, but they can signal to college-bound students how well the institutions they’re interested in are able to support students in their quests to graduate from college.
Jenny Nagaoka is the deputy director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Alexander Seeskin is the chief strategy officer and director of the To&Through Project, Urban Education Institute. This story has been edited and reposted here with permission.
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