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posted Dec 26, 2012, 10:56 AM by David Watson


By David A. Watson, Ph.D.


            Each holiday season, as we unpack the ornaments for our Christmas tree, there is one I look forward to finding above all others.  Of course it isn’t the only one that holds memories for me.  My little pink plastic bell, for example, chipped and with its clapper long gone, is a favorite, evoking as it does memories of my earliest childhood.  Yet there is one that means even more to me.  It was nearly Christmas in 1982 when my pretty, petite, and yes, young, girlfriend, to whom I had just proposed marriage, presented me with a simple hand-made gift.  I could not know then that this small and apparently insubstantial bit of cloth and stitching would come to encapsulate the very essence of my academic and professional aspirations over the next several years.  More about this tiny token momentarily.  Let me first offer a few insights from an intriguing recent survey and analysis of factors important (or not) to college graduation.

            Not long ago, the United States Department of Education published “The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College” (www.ed.gov/pubs).  This represents the government’s second iteration of a study designed to identify factors that either do or do not impact college degree completion; the first was of a national cohort of students all of whom graduated from high school in 1982 (followed through 1993), while this newer effort looked at 1992 graduates (who were followed through 2000).  Because large-scale changes were made to public education during the decade of the 1980s (the now-famous “A Nation at Risk” report was published in 1983) it was felt that a follow-up study might shed new light on whether these alternations have indeed resulted in improvements.  This follow-on report makes the case that the “path to degree completion” is increasingly complex, with students attending multiple institutions, making more and better use of community colleges, and including dual-credit, credit-by-examination, and summer classes as contributors to finishing their degrees.

            What then, are the factors the study identified as important in attaining the goal of completing what is increasingly viewed (and well-supported by economic data) as the essential price of admission to the good life; namely, a college degree?  What matters early in high school is the “academic intensity” of the coursework a student takes on.  For example, successful completion of mathematics courses through at least Algebra II is considered to be an important “tipping point” in finishing a bachelor’s-level degree.  Enrolling in, and passing, certain “gateway” courses in high school constitute strong predictors of later college success; e.g. among students who finished a course in American literature the ratio of those who later completed degrees to those who did not was 6:1, and for a course in chemistry, 4:1. 

All of this argues persuasively, for me at least, that support of advanced academics (i.e. academic rigor) by school boards, senior education administrators, and most importantly by parents and taxpayers is critically important to the future well-being of our children and indeed our country.  By rigor, I mean additional Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings, continued brisk development and implementation of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program, and other innovations in teaching and learning.

            Once a young person has matriculated into college, then, a number of other indicators clearly predict degree attainment.  Not earning at least 20 credits after 12 months of college enrollment portends a poor outcome.  Similarly, it is important that students enter college as soon after high school graduation as possible; the longer the delay in beginning postsecondary studies, the less likely the individual is to complete a degree.  Greater than 60 percent of students now take courses during summer terms; earning four or more credits during summer is strongly correlated with degree completion, especially among minority students.  The Dept. of Education report also found that dropping into “part-time” status as a student (defined as 12 credit hours in a given semester) proved “hazardous” to obtaining a college diploma.  Even so, being continuously enrolled, at whatever level of effort, was plainly the most important factor in degree completion.  Formal transfer from a community college to a four-year college, as opposed to simply moving back and forth (“swirling” in the vernacular of the report), is important as well.  Lastly, a first year grade-point average in the top 40% for all college students entering in a given year, as well as a GPA that trends upward over the longer-term, both strongly predict success.  AP and dual-credit courses now enable earning of college credit while still in high school, and in some school districts completing an IB diploma is now counted as the equivalent of a community college degree.

What do not matter, at least to the same extent, are factors such as the following: student expectations of success (its one thing to believe in success; it takes hard work and dedication to actually achieve it); grants and work-study programs (yes, financial aid is often necessary, as it absolutely was for me, but dollars alone won’t lead to success); socioeconomic status (gentleman’s C’s notwithstanding, for the most part parents can’t attend class or take tests for their children); and lastly, changing one’s major (which is, in fact, not negatively correlated with success in college).

            The little cross-stitched ornament read simply “Dr. Davey ‘82” in red and green thread.  I liked it immediately because she had so obviously created it herself.  As I pondered it after opening the small package, however, it quickly occurred to me that she believed in me and in my goal to complete my doctoral degree (though it would be another eight-plus years before I could truly call myself doctor).  Every year at this time I am reminded of her personal and hand-crafted vote of confidence in her spouse-to-be, and that Christmas 1982 was the year I gained the partner who helped me achieve my goal.  I needed a partner then, and our kids do now.  Supporting advanced academics will benefit our children and our country, likely far down the road when we are no longer here.  Merry Christmas to all (and most especially to my once, and still, favorite cross-stitcher, Fay)!