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How tougher classes in high school can help kids make it through college

Some 40 percent of students are failing to graduate from college in six years. A study calls for higher-quality college prep, with more advanced math, advanced placement classes, and better advising.

By Staff writer / October 11, 2012

Graduating students listen to President Obama speak at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in Ann Arbor, Mich., in this May 2010 file photo. Some 4 in 10 students typically never make it to graduation.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File

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About 4 out of 10 students at four-year colleges fail to earn a degree within six years – and timely completion rates at two-year schools are even lower.

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But what if high schools had a better recipe for preparing their students to stay in college? The National School Boards Association released a study Thursday afternoon highlighting some key ingredients: more advanced math courses, challenging courses such as Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB), and better academic advising.

If students are exposed to those factors – even if they don’t earn high scores on the course exams – they are more likely to continue college after their first year, a point at which many drop out, the study notes.

“This provides a rare glimpse into what high schools can do to really improve college success,” said Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at NSBA’s Center for Public Education, in a teleconference with reporters Thursday.

The findings don’t provide a silver bullet for school districts – many of which are still debating whether to make higher math mandatory or to open up college-level AP courses to all students who are interested.

“There’s certainly a big correlation between students in high school who take advanced math and [those who] do well in college, but correlation is not cause and effect; it could very well be that the people whose future destiny is to do well in college also are good at doing math,” says David Klein, a math professor at California State University at Northridge who has studied AP math courses and found many of them to lack quality when compared with college courses.

But by providing details about how students from various achievement levels and socioeconomic backgrounds fare in college, NSBA’s study attempts to control for as many factors as possible in order to isolate elements that high schools can improve.

The study is based on data from more than 9,000 students who enrolled in college immediately after high school in the fall of 2004 – a sample that represents more than 2 million students nationwide.

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