November, 2001
Research Confirms High School Curriculum Affects Students' College Success

The more rigorous the high school curriculum, the more likely students are to find success in college according to a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics in August. Students with a rigorous high school curriculum were found more likely to enroll in four-year college institutions and ultimately attain a bachelor's degree. The report also finds that a lack of a rigorous curriculum proves a more significant obstacle to overcome than socioeconomic challenges, test scores, or a poor initial year in college.

The study was based on three levels of high school curricula, starting with the core outlined by the New Basics curriculum first recommended by the National Commission on Excellence in A Nation at Risk, (1983)

The three levels of high school study as discussed in this report are:

Core Curriculum and Below: Includes 4 years English, 3 years mathematic, 3 years science and 3 years social studies.

Mid Level: Includes all components of Core, but expands to include Algebra I and Geometry, at least one year of a foreign language, and requires that at least two of the science classes must be a combination of biology, chemistry, and physics.

Rigorous Curriculum: Includes 4 years English, 3 years foreign language, 3 years social studies, 4 years mathematics (including pre-calculus or higher), 3 years science (including biology, chemistry, and physics), and one AP course.


How Well Are Entering College Students Prepared?

  • One-third of entering students in four-year public or private colleges or universities have completed a high school curriculum no higher than the core level; one-half have completed the mid-level curriculum; and only one-fifth have completed a rigorous curriculum.

  • Students from low-income families and students whose parents had no more than a high-school education are less likely than their more advantaged counterparts to report completing a rigorous high school curriculum.

  • Racial/ethnic group differences were also apparent: Black (8%) or Hispanic (16%) students are much less likely than White (20%) or Asian/Pacific Islander (31%) students to complete rigorous curricula.

Impact on College Enrollment and Degree Attainment

  • 71% of students who took rigorous curricula enrolled in a selective four-year college or university, compared to 40% from mid-level and 32% from core.

  • Three years after enrolling, 79% of students who had participated in a rigorous curriculum were continuously enrolled in their initial institutions, compared to 62% of mid-level and 55% of core curriculum students.

  • The study also found that the students from the rigorous curriculum group who had transferred from one four-year institution to another had a greater likelihood of staying on track to a bachelor's degree.


  • Completing a rigorous curriculum in high school is a stronger predictor of bachelor's degree attainment than standardized test scores or other measures of high school academic performance.

  • Completing a rigorous curriculum in high school may help students overcome disadvantages such as low family income and parents with no college experience.

  • Completing a rigorous curriculum in high school can help a student overcome a poor start to college, whether it is academic or social.

This column is based on a report from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, "High School Academic Curriculum and the Persistence Path Through College," NCES 2001-163, by Laura Horn & Lawrence K. Kojaku. It is available at