June 1, 2017

How much Does High School Quality Matter In College? Lots.

I've no doubt that the quality of your high school matters in preparing you for college.   But how much does it typically matter?     I went searching for studies that looked at it and I found : the report Can You Leave High School Behind?  (link to PDF)   It looked at data from University of Texas Austin students.  

In Texas they've had a program where the top 10% of all high schools are admitted to UT automatically.    This means they get a good distribution of students from high schools of varying quality.   And it gives them a lot of data about >25 thousand students who came from varying quality high schools and then went to UT.    Looking at the grades in UT for those kids they can see what the correlation is between high school quality metrics and college performance.

In short:    If you go to a good or bad high school does it reflect in your college GPA?

The answer is YES.   Definitely.

Here's a excerpt from the study that illustrates :

"As an example, we estimate a predicted GPA for a simulated student with high school characteristics from two different campuses – one of the highest-ranked and one of the lowest-ranked high schools in the Houston area. Our simulated student is female, Hispanic, age 18, and has a mother with a high school diploma, family income between $20,000-40,000, and $1,000 in unmet financial need. Graduating from the high-performing high school, this student’s estimated freshman year GPA 3.21. Graduating 23 from the low performing high school, her estimated GPA is only 2.30 – a difference of over 1.6 standard deviations."

So they modeled that an specific student would end up with a 0.9 GPA difference if they'd' gone to a good high school versus a bad high school.  

Thats a pretty big swing.    I'd consider a 3.2 GPA in college a success and a mere 2.3 GPA to be a failure or at least a pretty mediocre performance.

Of course the study is just looking at averages.    A kid from the worst high school could go on to ace college and win a Nobel prize and a kid from the very bestest high school could flunk out of college and end up a homeless drug addict.    But on average... the quality of high school is reflected in the average grades of the students who go on to college.



  1. What is a simulated student? With so many data points couldn't they use real students?

  2. SteveD, good question. I am thinking that when they say 'simulated student' they mean that they plugged all the data into a computer model and then the computer model spits out the average / expected values for students with specific traits.


  3. I wonder if this really measures high school quality or student quality.

    For instance, they mention high rated vs low rated high schools? How do they measure the rating of the high schools? Probably on average GPA or on average standardized test scores.

    So were they comparing two students who had the same GPA / test scores from the two different schools or were they merely comparing two students who finished at the 90th percentile in the two different schools. A student at the 90th percentile where the top 5% all get 4.0 GPAs is not the same as a student at the 90th percentile where there may be no one at the school with a 4.0. And if the school is a low performing school why is that? Are their teachers inferior? Perhaps. But if you take the teachers from the best schools and swap them with the teachers from the worst, will the students results also swap? Highly unlikely.

    The same thing can be said for highly rated colleges. Why is Harvard or MIT such a highly rated school? Are they a vastly superior institution at which any student will learn vastly more than at other universities, or do their students simply perform well because of selection bias because they get the top 1/10 of 1% of all students in the nation. Most of the different can be accounted for by student quality not institution quality.

    That is not to say that I don't think there are institutions and high schools that do such a poor job that their students are unprepared. I am sure there are. However once you reach a basic threshold of competence, I would suggest that the vast majority of the difference is in student quality, not in institution quality.

    Malcolm Gladwell's book David and Goliath does a good job of showing how a top student actually will perform better in life and in results by doing excellent at a good student rather than doing mediocre at a top school like Harvard. If quality of institution is the key factor then any student should do better by going to a "better" institution. However the results tend to show the opposite. Big fish in a small pond is far better for most people than a smaller fish in a big pond.

    The quality of the individual, and his/her individual drive and efforts seem to outweigh the institution as long as the institution meets basic thresholds of competence.

    - Apex

  4. Apex,

    You raise a very good point.

    Maybe the highschool is 'better' simply because its full of smarter kids who then naturally do better in college.

    You could feasibly see schools end up 'better' simply because of demographics. For example if you have a school next door to a fancy private school and half the faculty has kids in that school then the school will have a bunch of kids who are from well of families with highly educated parents. That ends up with better student results than a school in at the crack alley.

    However the study does account for demographics. So it would equally compare for family income and education level and parental marital status. That should rule out most of those other factors. So its not comparing a rich kid with phd parents from a good school with a poor kid from a broken home in a bad school. Its holding the income levels, parent education etc equal.

    You could also simply have more smart kids in a school versus another school even after controlling for demographics. However I find that highly unlikely to happen in any large amount. If you take 200 people you're going to end up with a typical bell curve of aptitude. Its not statistically likely you'll have entire schools that skew smarter or dumber with demographics controlled for.

    I think this study may also be reflecting the fact that getting a 4.0 at a poor quality high school is not the same as getting a 4.0 at a high quality high school. Its also another way of saying high school quality matters.

    I agree that the quality of the individual and their work ethic etc should outweigh other factors. But its easier to do better if you have a good teacher with many years experience in a well funded school in a good neighborhood that doesn't have gang violence and has a low student to teacher ratio. All that stuff impacts a students ability to learn. If you make it easier then more will succeed. Easier is easier no matter how dumb or smart the student is.



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