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Conventional wisdom holds that parents seeking the best future for their children -- educationally and in life generally -- should try to get their children in the best high school possible. And in that context, "best" typically means socioeconomic status (wealthiest) and academic achievement.

It turns out that conventional wisdom is half right. Attending high schools with high socioeconomic status appears to yield a lifetime benefit -- in educational attainment and career success. But the results are much more mixed for attending a high school where many students have a high level of academic achievement. Of course many high schools with high socioeconomic status also have students who achieve academically, but a new study controlled for those and other factors to allow for better comparisons.

The study (summary available here) used a federal database to track the lives of people who graduated from high school in 1960 over the course of their professional lives, with an emphasis on data from 11 and 50 years after they graduated. The study, in the new issue of Psychological Science, is by researchers at the Universities of Tübingen, Houston and Illinois at Urbana Champaign. (A key note is that many high schools in 1960 denied opportunities to certain groups.)

Attending a high-socioeconomic-status high school had a positive impact, at 11 and 50 years, on a range of outcomes, including educational expectations, educational attainment, income and occupational prestige. And students who individually had high academic achievement did well. But those who attended high schools with high levels of academic achievement, when controlled for other factors, did not do as well.

The results suggest that the best way to get ahead -- in educational attainment and beyond -- is to start out from a good place economically.

The paper says that "the question of what kind of school to attend does not have a simple answer. According to these findings, it appears that the optimal combination would be a school with a high socioeconomic composition combined with a modest achievement composition. This combination appears to tip the scales in the direction of mostly positive outcomes in both the short and long run. Finding this combination, however, might be challenging given the relatively strong relation between socioeconomic and achievement composition at the high school level."

While many prior studies have looked at the benefits of attending high schools with wealthy students, this study "is the first to simultaneously test how two indicators of school composition (socioeconomic and achievement composition) are concurrently and prospectively related to educational and occupational outcomes across the life course," the paper says.

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