Long-Term Effects of a Student's High School Experience

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Observable dimensions of high school quality explain approximately 20 percent of the variation in freshman GPA...

To promote diversity in higher education, several states offer automatic admission to students who graduate at the top of their high school class. A new study, Can You Leave High School Behind? (NBER Working Paper No. 19842), exploits one such automatic admissions policy to study the effects of high school characteristics on college outcomes. The authors, Sandra Black, Jane Arnold Lincove, Jenna Cullinane, and Rachel Veron, find that high school characteristics affect performance in college, and that "[h]igh school variables measuring campus socioeconomic status (SES), academic preparation for college, and school resources all are related to college performance, as measured by freshman year GPA (grade point average)."

The study focuses on Texas, where a rule enacted in 1997 grants the top 10 percent of graduates from each in-state high school automatic admission to the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. This increased the diversity of UT students, but it also raised concerns about the preparation of students who came from lower-performing high schools. The authors study nearly 50,000 freshmen entering UT-Austin from 2002 to 2009, and find that high school characteristics affect students' college performance. The percentage of students in free/reduced price lunch and special education programs at a student's high school is negatively associated with freshman GPA, whereas the percentage of students taking Advanced Placement exams and SATs, more experienced teachers, and larger districts exhibit positive associations. "Observable dimensions of high school quality explain approximately 20 percent of the variation in freshman GPA," according to the authors.

The factors having the largest impact, according to one of the statistical models developed by the authors, are the size of the district (or district economies of scale) and student SES. A one standard deviation increase in district size is associated with a rise of 0.27 grade points in a freshman's GPA. However, a one standard deviation increase in the percentage of free/reduced lunches served at a school is associated with a decrease of 0.10 grade points. The authors report smaller effects of racial composition, student mobility, and the fraction of students in special education programs.

The authors find very little evidence that the impact of high school quality declines as students advance in college. The same high school characteristics that best predict students' GPA performance as freshmen also predict it in their sophomore and junior years. The authors observe that "[t]here are a few notable examples that suggest that within-school changes in high school variables have different effects on different types of students." For example, high schools' percentage of students receiving a free/reduced lunch and levels of teacher experience are associated with the college GPA of females, but not of males.

Although the effect of any one of these high school characteristics is small, their cumulative effect can be significant. For instance, an 18-year-old Hispanic female whose mother has a high school education, whose family income is between $20,000 and $40,000, and who has $1,000 in unmet financial need, would be predicted to earn a GPA of 3.21 in her freshman year if she had attended one of the highest ranked high schools in greater Houston. If she attended one of the lowest ranked Houston high schools, her predicted GPA would be only 2.30.

The authors conclude that "our results support the hypothesis that high school quality matters in college and continues to influence students throughout their college careers."

-- Laurent Belsie