HigherEdMorning.comAnd the best predictor of college success is ...

And the best predictor of college success is …

September 15, 2009 by Taylor Hannigan
Posted in: Enrollment, In this week's e-newsletter, Latest News & Views

It’s not standardized test scores or demographic factors, according to a new book. Instead, it’s this.

In  “Crossing the Finish Line,” co-authors William Bowen, Matthew Chingos and Michael McPherson analyzed the educational records of more than 200,000 students who entered four-year colleges in 1999.

Among their findings: The grades students achieve in high school are the best predictor of how well they will do in college.

The authors also say that based on their findings:

  • The type of high school a student attends isn’t a great predictor of whether he’ll finish college
  • When it comes to most colleges, a student’s SAT and ACT scores don’t help predict whether he will earn a college degree
  • Students who finish high school with a grade point average of at least 3.0 are a lot more likely to graduate from college than those who don’t, and
  • Four-year colleges are a surer route to a degree than community colleges.

The book also says that among the students studied, white men were 6% more likely to graduate than black men with similar scores and grades, and women were much more likely to graduate than men.

What do you think is the best predictor of academic success beyond high school? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

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  • http://claymore.engineer.gvsu.edu/~steriana Andrew Sterian

    Not in my experience. I’ve seen students with a 4.0 in high school do very poorly in college, and quite the opposite as well. Perhaps high school grades are the *best* predictor, but I don’t think they’re a very good predictor.

  • http://uwyo.edu E.G. Meyer

    The best predictor of success in college is an A or B in Algebra taken in the eighth grade.

  • Paul

    “What do you think is the best predictor of academic success beyond high school?”

    Er, I’d say it’s “Being smart enough to know that my personal-experience-based anecdotes are not equal in value to the results of an analysis of “educational records of more than 200,000 students who entered four-year colleges in 1999″.

    How are people supposed to give intelligent answers to this question? The question just begs for people to talk about their poorly-supported prejudices, and suggests that we _should_ think of those prejudices as being as valid as research results.

  • http://www.higheredmorning.com Patricia Diodati

    If you do well in high school when peer pressure is at it’s peak you’ll do just fine in college. Four year college vs community college….. Community colleges is great for earning credits toward your degree. You usually have about 60 credits for an Associates Degree and some will transfer to your 4 year degree costing half the amount of a 4 year college tuition. They offer Joint Admission where 4 year colleges will take most of your credits from Community College as long as they are not developmental (basic courses that were offered in high school). ie Basic Algebra, Basic Reading, Basic Writing, do not tranfer to a degree program because you should have taken them in high school. At least you have somewhere to go to get the basics if for some reason it didn’t happen in high school. Don’t be too hard on yourselves we have all made mistakes. You need to start sometime. Might as well be now.

  • Wendel Wickland

    Students with clear cut academic/career goals are more likely to be successful in college than those who are there simply because they think it is important to get a degree. To be more clear, they must be the student’s own goals and not the goals of parents, relatives and friends. That is not to say that the expectations of others is not helpful, but self-motivation is much stronger than other motivation. After they enter college, the results of the freshman year are the best predictor of success through graduation.

  • Gary

    Nothing new here. It’s long been known in the Institutional Research community that high school grades are the best, although imperfect, predictors of success. IIRC, about a third of first-year college grades are “explained” by HS grades; entrance exams predict about 15% at best. Social and adjustment factors contribute to the reasons why students don’t do well – perhaps as much as half of the influence on why students leave college.

  • Laura

    IF you are looking at a group of students who are all motivated, determined and persistant to complete a degree THEN high school grades and/or standardized tests, school intelligence, may accurately predict who will complete.

    The students who (think they) know what they want to do in the future and have a plan will be more likely to be in that motivated group.

    I’m an institutional researcher in higher ed who is also a parent of two students. They were both excellent high school students with excellent standarized tests scores. Their college experiences however have been very different. One was determined and motivated, knew what they wanted to do and breezed right through their undergrad degree. The other (the one with the better high school grades and test scores) has no idea what they want to do, hasn’t finished, got horrible grades off and on through 4 years at the selective state university. This one is now exploring Health careers at the local community college. One’s a boy and one’s a girl, I’m sure there are studies and predictions based on that too.

  • Alex


    That was a brilliant response and on the mark.

  • Kathleen

    “Four-year colleges are a surer route to a degree than community colleges.” according to the above article.

    Consider the following:

    1. Community colleges usually take any students, regardless of how well they did in high school. Of course, some of these students will not complete a 4 year degree. Community colleges often do help students who would never attend college otherwise. A number of these students then do get a 2- or 4-year degree. This is the icing on the cake.

    2. Many students at community colleges are seeking an associates degree, not a 4 year degree. Often these are in vocational areas where a 4 year degree is not necessary.

  • Tom Sanders

    Thank you, Paul.

  • Issac G.

    I believe the key predictor of college success depends on how much emphasis is put by the parents on the importance of education. Providing a foundation on the importance of education by the parents coupled with the student having a certain level of motivation, having a career goal, and a specific interest in a certain field would show a strong indicator of that student completing their college education.

  • Harmonia

    Were you taught to focus? That’s it, I think.

    But what is “success”? Good grades? Finishing?

    I had a 3.3 at an Ivy League school, and graduated in 7 semesters in the 70′s. Some of my papers were deemed “almost brilliant.” (!)

    But I don’t think I was successful, because when I finished I did not know what I wanted to do, except continue studying/writing, so I went to grad school. After that degree, and a 4.0, I knew I did not want to teach, so I went down the slippery slope in fast lane aimless LA.

    Now, years later I do higher ed admin, NOT a challenge. because of course, in academia you are judged by your job position not your degrees nor your “brilliance.”

    What is success?

  • Texas DJ

    I’m all-in with Paul…and Laura as well.

    I’ve worked in higher education for 20 years, and was myself, a long time ago, a student both in high school and in college. I sure as heck am not going to claim that I have any unique insight over that of the cited study of 200,000 students over a period of years.

    I would however be curious to see the numbers (if they exist) on an inverse study, namely, looking for indicators or predictors of anticipated “failure” to see if those numbers bear out the previous study based upon “success”. They would at least lend statistical validation to the variance, or error rate of the referenced study.

    To Harmonia’s final question of “What is success?”- I’d say that according to the study (or at least the brief synopsis I just read from the URL above), they were not measuring “success”. They were measuring “completion rates”. I’d have to read the entire study to see if they ever equated completion with success. I would certainly hope that they had NOT, since one is clearly objective (completion) where the other would appear to be very subjective…as evidenced by your question.

  • Texas DJ

    I should have added that I believe the headline: “And the Best Predictor of Success Is…” has been penned by the author at Higher Ed Morning online, and not by the authors of the study. At least, that’s the way I interpreted it.

  • Ward Deutschman

    The validity of a well designed research study seems a bit stronger than individual experiences. But it would be very helpful to see the research design and the details of what data were gathered and how they were gathered. How you phrase a question, and how it is asked (written? verbal? how phrased? etc.) can completely change the results of a survey.

    Interesting tho.

  • http://higheredmorning.com Martha

    I agree with Issac that the emphasis parents put on education is one of the key factors in student success. In my experience, Asian-American students tend to excel in high school and college due to the importance their parents place on education, and the respect of the sons and daughters for their parents.

    TRIO programs such as Student Support Services and Upward Bound were created in part to serve first-generation college students who do not have role models at home to emphasize the importance of a college education. The staff of the TRIO programs is there to instill educational goals and help their students find the motivation to achieve them.

    Comparing the success rate of two-year and four-year colleges does a disservice to community colleges which have traditionally been “open door” insititutions. These colleges enroll students who have the “ability to benefit,” but aren’t necessarily in college for the right reason. Unfortunately, many students enroll in the community college because they must be considered a full-time student to remain on their parent’s health insurance, or they want to collect financial aid.

  • Debbie

    So many of the previous comments are on target. I am a retired community college instructor who taught a College Survival course for many, many years. I have seen… and there is research out there..that a high emotional IQ is a better predictor of college success than ACT scores or high school grades.
    Students with a high emotional IQ are able to postpone gratification, persist, reframe and empathize. They are also able to motivate themselves as well as others. They form networks.
    Many of the previous comments and situations were really describing these qualities. Often,
    high school students with solid grades have developed these traits, but I have worked with
    many who have not!

  • http://HigherEdMorning-UMUC Sandra B.

    I was destined to be a failure. I am African American. My physically and mentally abused, alcholic mother left me with my alcholic father when I was in 2nd grade. I grew up very poor in a north Philadelphia ghetto. I scored 750 (combined) on my SAT’s. I earned a cumulative GPA of 2.4 and graduated with a BA in psychology. I earned a GPA of 3.79 in graduate school. I now have a master’s degree and I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) at a community college in southern New Jersey. Successful?

    YES! BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD I AM SUCCESSFUL! I am shocked that not one response referred to the obvious – Divine Intervention!

  • Peter A

    The response by Paul and others is expected of academics – people who generally believe in data. The response by Sandra regarding divine intervention might be expected from someone who bucked the system. I note that she is only one response in 18, or about 5% of the responses. This is about the right percentage for believers in divine intervention among academics. I wonder what the general population of the U.S. would believe.

  • jim malarkey

    How can we be sure that by limiting our frame to “finishing” we are not merely describing the “obedient personality type” (if I may) who, perhaps, whatever the duty will deliver? Did it before, will do again, and yet again. Yes, but…

    It is conceivable a percentage of the best critical and creative thinkers will get so disturbed by the incoherence and inanities of college culture (not to mention outrageous costs) that they wander away. Folks like Harmonia might be among these?

    Are there studies of transformation and what predicts creative brilliance? Grades may not, I suspect, if we let geniuses into the sample. Then again, I am aware of the payoff of persistence, persistence, persistence.

  • Harmonia

    I’m very glad Paul has raised a point that is rapidly becoming the elephant in the blogosphere, and one that I’ve raised in other forums.

    The media in general and managers of mass blogs are guilty! of throwing (often pointless/impossible/non-issue) questions out to all comers for their “opinions” on all sorts of topics, and the ensuing knickers-in-a-twist silliness is just one more indication of the narcissism and ignorance running rampant today. Yes, as a culture, we’ve found yet another way to waste our time and fill our brains with drivel. World Have Your Say (on the BBC radio) is a particularly shameless example of today’s yellow “journalism.” Manufacturing hysteria and whipping up emotional responses for …what purpose?

    Like this one: “Should jurors be allowed to bring cell phones (including ones with cameras) into court rooms?”

    Is that really an issue? Haven’t cameras been banned for years? Is there really a reason to change the requirement that jurors take cases seriously and give them their full attention, along with respect for the rule of confidentiality?

    Yes, there are some thoughtful answers, but what is worth reading is about 1 in 20, if that. Not every schmo’s opinion is worth something. Data is not the only thing worth paying attention to, but what is obviously the result of STUDY and long thought on a meaningful issue is usually worth some attention.

    Not all experts have sense, but at least they usually have the facts.

  • Alan

    In my experience, the best predictor of college success is a careful combination of familial support, non-first generation of college student within the family (something the student can’t control) and the environment that the student in question surrounds themselves with (supportive on-campus clubs/organizations vs. social clubs/organizations).

  • Sara

    DUH! In Dinosaur Statistics 101, we learned, GRADES predict GRADES. But after nearly 30 years in the business, I also know that it is one of the easiest things to measure that have similar properties to what students do in college. Too bad these guys didn’t look at some non-cognitive variables such as motivation, self-efficacy and family support. Know why? They are hard to measure.

  • Mark Goldfain

    I think Paul made an awesome point!

  • BJ

    No, I think Paul stated the obvious, but SARA made the good point. Notice how grades , though the *best* predictor, is not really a GOOD predictor. Would you ever agree to a medical surgery with only a 30% success rate unless it was your only option? Here, grades aren’t the only option, but as Sara pointed out, it is the only *easy* option to obtain. Sometimes we rely way to much on statistics instead of our own personal judgements and observations…which are usually much more relavant to us individually (though not so easy to quantify nor valid to disperse as ‘universal’) Colleges LIKE to use data that make their decisions easy, even if incorrect, for 2 reasons. It is prohibitive (time and money wise) to truly evaluate each student on his/her individual merits & circumstances and secondly, it leaves them open to more lawsuits when the criteria is ‘subjective’, not ‘objective’. Such a disservice in the sake efficiency and CYA.

  • Jack

    One single attribute is highly predictive of persistence…a high school graduate who has WORKED….(as evidenced by having a W-2 during the high school years)! Apparently…the discipline of working measures reliability, dependability, persistence, etc.

  • Mary

    Interesting topic. I dropped out of high school on my 16th birthday and didn’t get my GED until I was 32. Both of my parents were college graduates as was my grandmother on my mothers side. This was a big motivator for my to return to school, but more than that was a desire for a better life and income. I drove a 120 mile round trip to complete my associates at a community college and 130 mile round trip to complete my bachelors.

    I had three children at the time and we were dirt poor. They watched me do my homework at the kitchen table for six years. My two oldest children struggled with high school; my middle son was kicked out because of behavior issues; they both finished at alternative schools. All three of my children started working at 16 and all three went to community colleges until they could transfer to a university. And they all finished.

    I don’t think their (or my lack of) high school grades or experience had anything to do with our success. I think high school grades are an indicator of parental concern with education as a whole, but I would say that girls are more likely than boys to graduate because they have a clearer understand of responsibility toward family and over all students are more likely to graduate because of family support and encouragement. The statistics are a reflection of these conditions, but not the reason for a students success, or failure.

  • Dave

    I believe that the best predictor is the number bathrooms in the student’s family home. As BJ notes, sort of, grades and bathrooms are surrogates for a bunch of other factors that are much more interesting and problematic.

  • Bob Avakian

    I teach in a basically 2 year school and as such see many older, non-traditional, students. Most of them are highly motivated and have a high graduation rate. Is ti just the age (maturity level) or are they very cognizant of what it takes to make your way in the real world?

  • http://www.indianhills.edu Don Darland

    Frankly, it is very simple “you can not measure a person’s determination” or simply put the fight in the dog! Don

  • Laurie

    I think the most influencing factor upon a student’s educational success is his or her attitude toward education. If education has been important throughout a child’s life then education will likely remain important beyond high school and into adult life. The priority the family places upon education thoughout the life of a child therefore, would be the best predictor of a student’s long term academic success.

  • http://www.parentalcontrolcellphones.com Parental Control Advocate

    This is an hot topic for parents with children. Im glad that there are options available to use to protect our family.


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