The findings of this study demonstrated a consistent advantage experienced by students who completed rigorous high school curricula, and to a lesser extent by those completing mid-level curricula, over their peers completing core curricula or lower.
However, the level of high school curricula students reported completing also was related to their family background characteristics and indicators of socioeconomic status, including family income, parents’ education, race/ethnicity, and the economic status of their high school’s student body. All of these factors relate to whether or not students have the opportunities to participate in and complete rigorous curricula. Moreover, students’ success in staying in college was also related to where they first enrolled and how well they did in their first year. Yet, even when all these factors were taken into consideration, the advantage of completing a rigorous high school academic curriculum remained.
The same was not observed for levels of SAT scores. Similar to the findings for curriculum levels, SAT scores were related to persistence when first-year college GPA was not included in the regression. However, after GPA was added, high school curriculum remained a significant factor, but SAT scores did not. These findings are consistent with recent research based on high school transcripts for a cohort of 1980 high school sophomores (Adelman 1999); this study demonstrated that high school curriculum was a stronger predictor of bachelor’s degree attainment than standardized test scores or other measures of high school academic performance.
Perhaps most notable in the current study, is the apparent benefit of a strong high school academic curriculum for transfer students. Students who transfer from their initial 4-year college may do so because they are struggling either academically or socially, and attempting to find a better fit in another institution. One-fifth of 199596 beginning undergraduates enrolled in 4-year colleges had transferred from their first institution by 1998. For these students in particular, as their level of high school academic curriculum increased, so did their likelihood of staying on track to a bachelor’s degree (by transferring to another 4-year institution without a break in enrollment).
Taken together, the results suggest that completing a rigorous academic curriculum in high school may help students overcome socioeconomic disadvantages such as low family income and parents with no college experience, as well as helping those who get a poor start in college (whether academic or social) and decide to transfer.