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A new study suggests that efforts to recruit more disadvantaged students to college by seeking those at disadvantaged high schools may be hindered if there are not simultaneous efforts to improve the high schools or to offer those students help once in college.

The study, released today by the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines the college grades of students admitted to the University of Texas at Austin through the "10 percent program" in which the top students at every Texas high school have been guaranteed admission (although the percentage has been reduced somewhat since the plan was created).

The study (abstract available here) found that the quality of high school is a key predictor of grades in college, not only in freshman year, but continuing into the sophomore and junior years as well.

Over all, measures of high school quality explain 20 percent of the variation in high school grades, and that variation is not substantially reduced in the years that follow, the report says. (Measures of high schools include both socioeconomic statistics such as percentage of students from low-income backgrounds, which historically correlates with limited resources at high schools, and the percentage of students taking college admissions or Advanced Placement tests.)

Using a large data set available from the university and the Texas public school system, the researchers were able to model the college performance of students from the same socioeconomic groups who attended better and worse high schools. And the results show that for students from a range of backgrounds, the high school can be the key factor in college success.

For example, the researchers did modeling on the performance of a female Hispanic student who enrolled at UT at the age of 18, has a mother with a high school diploma, and family income between $20,000 and $40,000. Such a student, graduating from a high-performing high school, would be predicted to earn a 3.21 grade-point average at UT. Such a student from a low-performing high school would be predicted to earn a 2.30 at UT.

The authors of the report are Sandra E. Black, Jane Arnold Lincove, Jenna Cullinane and Rachel Veron -- all from UT Austin.

They write that their findings show that the challenges in providing college opportunity may extend beyond simply identifying the best students at disadvantaged high schools. Rather, they say, more efforts are needed to help those students -- even those with top grades -- succeed in college. The success of automatic admissions programs such as the "10 percent" plan in Texas, they add, may depend on "interventions" to help those students coming from high schools that may not have offered the best preparation.



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