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Exploring the impact of high school course rigor on student success in college

August 9, 2023

Mary Venezia

Chief of Staff, Enrollment Management, University of Arizona 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of EAB.

Does taking more rigorous high school courses (AP, IB, honors, dual enrollment) impact student success (retention & graduation) in college?  

Increasing undergraduate student success is critical to the mission of the University of Arizona (UAZ). In enrollment management, we balance the goals of student retention and graduation with the goals of increasing access for students in Arizona while maintaining net tuition revenue. In exploring how we can balance our goals and best support students, we wanted to explore if students taking rigorous high school coursework have increased persistence and graduation at UAZ.

In post-pandemic enrollment cycles, UAZ has experienced increased inquiries on how course rigor is considered in the admission and merit award process. UAZ has always been a test-optional university, and during the pandemic, we stopped using standardized test scores for merit award purposes and evaluate unweighted high school GPAs for admission and merit award purposes. This practice has increased curiosity about how or if the university is recognizing course rigor in our admissions process. While taking rigorous high school courses can have numerous benefits for college success, it’s important to note that retention and graduation in college are influenced by various factors, including personal motivation, support systems, campus resources, and the overall college environment. Additionally, it is important to consider that not all students have equitable access to rigorous coursework, especially those from rural and low-income school districts.

There is a wealth of research on how students taking AP, IB, or other rigorous coursework in high school are more likely to enroll in college but there is limited research on how students who have taken those courses have persisted once enrolled. The EAB team helped me identify some existing research on The Impacts of School-Provided GPA and Advanced Course Limits on Admissions Decisions and reports specific to increasing access to collegeClosing the College Access Gap Studyas well as other institutional and district-wide best practices for using course rigor. Using these resources and discussions with campus leadership I designed a research project from this capstone that may inform future enrollment management initiatives around high school course rigor.

In collaboration with data analysts from our university integrated planning office, we designed a research study looking at 10 years of undergraduate student data and evaluated how students who have taken rigorous coursework have persisted in comparison to their peers who did not take those courses. We will also analyze the data looking at other demographic segments that are known to contribute to student success. Using this analysis and research, I will put together a recommendation for senior leadership’s consideration.

By analyzing this information, we will be able to make an informed decision to best support student success at the university. I appreciate the EAB Rising Education Leaders Fellowship for providing this engaging opportunity and UAZ for supporting my participation to learn and explore our industry with a special emphasis on institutional problem-solving.

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