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One educational mystery is exactly why it’s so much harder to graduate from college in four years these days. Back in the 1970s, almost 60 percent of eventual bachelor’s degree recipients graduated within four years of finishing high school. By the 1990s, that had dropped to under 45 percent. (Data source: here.)

Some hypothesize that more unprepared students are now going to college and they spend their first year or two taking remedial classes before starting to rack up college credits. But other researchers say the increase in unprepared students cannot fully explain the dramatic decrease in on-time college graduation. Instead, they assert that students have to work more during college to pay for rising tuition bills, leaving less time for school, and that cash-strapped government-funded colleges are offering fewer sections of key courses, making it harder for students to squeeze in all their requirements.

Recent analysis conducted by two scholars at the College Board, the organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement (AP) tests, along with a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, suggests that the latter researchers may be correct, and that granting more early college credit while students are in high school might help.

The researchers found that even college-ready students — those who obtained scores of 3, 4 or 5 on the AP exams — were more likely to graduate from college in four years only if their colleges gave them credit for these exams. This conclusion came from an analysis of AP test scores and college outcomes for 4.5 million students, and is reported in a 2015 working paper, “Giving College Credit Where it is Due: Advanced Placement Exam Scores and College Outcomes.”

Specifically, the researchers found that a student who got a 5 (the top score) was no more likely to graduate in four years than a student who just missed the 5 cutoff by a question or two, unless the 5-scoring student got college credit for the subject. Statistically speaking, the students were nearly identical (at least in that AP subject). But if they attended a school that gives college credit for 5’s only, then the 5 student had a higher probability of graduating in four years than the 4 student. If both students attended a college that doesn’t award any credit for AP exams, there was no difference in the graduation rates between the two students.

This pattern continued downward. A student who obtained a 4 was no more likely to graduate in four years than a student who got a 3, unless the 4 student received college credit. It even extended down to the student who got a 3. Unless he got college credit for his 3, he was no more likely to graduate in four years than the student who got a 2.

A little background context is helpful in understanding the significance of this research. It’s well established, and even intuitive, that students who do well on AP exams tend to have better college outcomes. (See page 18 of this paper for college graduation rates by AP score).

But it’s a matter of dispute whether AP exams actually help anyone. It could be that more diligent, more motivated students are more likely to take and do well on AP exams, and they would have done better in college regardless. This research makes a compelling argument that some students are achieving better college outcomes because of the extra AP credits.

“If there’s a mechanism that can improve on-time graduation, that’s a big win,” said Jonathan Smith, an economist in the College Board’s research department and one of the study’s authors. “It’s not about AP so much. It’s about getting college credits in high school. You can get it from dual enrollment,” too, he added, referring to programs that allow students to take college courses while in high school.

I was surprised to learn that even students with high AP scores can struggle to graduate in four years. I would have guessed that the kind of student who gets high AP scores would have enough confidence and motivation to get through college on time.

Smith is working on another paper now, using this same data, and finding that there is another sort of confidence boost from high AP scores — sometimes a dramatic one. This doesn’t concern college graduation, but choice of major.  In some fields, getting a 5 over a 4 can increase the chances of majoring in that field by almost 30 percent.

But I digress. When it comes to college graduation, it seems ridiculously obvious that students who arrive at college with college credits in hand will have a leg up, so to speak. They have fewer credits remaining to cram into their schedules. Taking fewer courses would, of course, make it easier to graduate in four years.

I don’t know that the solution to our college graduation problem is to paste more college credits on high school graduates before they arrive at college. Wouldn’t it be better to fix the root causes, such as soaring tuition bills and required course sequences that are difficult to schedule?

This article also appeared here

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