Information Brief 2001-3

What Helps or Hinders Students' Chances of Success in College?

Why do some students do better their first year in college than others? Are there pre-college student characteristics that differentiate successful college students from less successful college students?

Typically, first-year college success is measured using students' GPAs. Research has shown that ACT scores are related to students' success in their first year of college. To what extent are other factors associated with a successful first year in college? Understanding these characteristics may help counselors, teachers, and parents as they help prepare students for a positive college experience.

We studied the educational and extracurricular characteristics of 198,329 ACT-tested students from 246 colleges. These students had enrolled in and completed their first year of college in 1996-97. Students who withdrew from college during their first year were not included. For each college, students with first-year college GPAs of 3.2 or higher were identified as "high college achievers" and those with first-year college GPAs of 2.0 or lower were identified as "low college achievers." These cutoffs corresponded to the top and bottom 25% of first-year GPAs for this group of students. We then compared the percentages of low and high college achievers by student characteristic across all 246 colleges.

Educational Preparation and Achievement

As we might expect, students' educational preparation is strongly related to students' success their first year in college. Figure 1 shows that taking upper level mathematics and sciences courses in high school is related to first-year success in college. For example, of students who took calculus in high school, 41% were high achievers and 15% were low achievers.

The grades students earn in high school are also related to success in college.Of students with high school averages between 2.0 and 3.0, more than one-third were low college achievers and less than one-tenth were high college achievers. In comparison, of students with high school averages greater than 3.0, about one-tenth were low achievers, where more than one-third were high achievers.

graph 1

FIGURE 1. Academic Performance in College, by High School Courses Taken

It should be noted that students' high school course work is also related to their academic achievement in high school. Higher achieving students are more likely to take upper-level courses in high school. However, we found that taking trigonometry, calculus, or physics is positively related to college success, regardless of students' previous grades in high school.

As mentioned earlier, ACT scores are also related to first-year college success.Of students with ACT Composite scores of 19 or below, 9% were high achievers and almost 40% were low achievers. In comparison, of students with Composite scores between 24 and 27, about one-tenth were low achievers and over 40% were high achievers. About two-thirds of students with ACT Composite scores between 28 and 36 were high college achievers, and less than one-tenth were low college achievers.

Education-Related Factors

Students seem to have reasonable expectations about their preparation for doing college-level work. Students who expected a first-year college GPA of 2.0 to 2.9 were more than 3 times as likely to be low achievers as high achievers. Almost no students who expected a college GPA lower than 2.0 were high achievers. Students who expected a college GPA of 3.0 or higher were more likely to be high achievers than low achievers (34% vs. 17%).

Furthermore, students appear to know when they need more help. For example, students who said they need help with study skills or math skills were nearly two times more likely to be low achievers than high achievers (31% vs. 16%, and 28% vs. 18%).

Students' plans for college often reflect their educational aspirations and motivation for college. These characteristics are also related to success in college. For example, as shown in Figure 2, about one-third of students who were not enrolled in a college-preparatory curriculum in high school, or who planned to complete only a vocational/technical or two-year degree were likely to be low achievers. In comparison, less than 20% of high achievers had these characteristics. Students who planned to achieve post-Bachelor's degrees, or who were enrolled in a college preparatory curriculum, were somewhat more likely to be high achievers than low achievers (28% vs. 22% and 29% vs. 21%).

graph 2

FIGURE 2. Academic Performance in College, by Education-Related Factors

Extracurricular Activities

Student involvement in selected high school extracurricular activities is related to success in college. As shown in Figure 3, students who participate in high school instrumental music, student government, departmental clubs, religious organizations, and/or high school or community service organizations were more likely to be high achievers than low achievers.

Not surprisingly, students' plans for extracurricular activities in college were also related to college success. Of students who planned to participate in student government, religious organizations, or campus/community service organizations in college, about 30% were high achievers in college, compared to about 20% of low achievers.

graph 3

FIGURE 3. Academic Performance in College, by HS Extracurricular Activities


There are many characteristics over which students have little or no control, including family characteristics such as income and parental support, and the quality of the high school education they receive. However, students do have some choices about many other factors that are related to success in college. A few are noted here. Students who have higher educational aspirations, take rigorous course work and get good grades in them, and participate in a reasonable number of extracurricular activities in high school and in college are more likely to be successful in their first year of college than students who do not take these steps. Parents, counselors, and teachers who encourage these kinds of positive behaviors beginning early in middle and high school, and who attend to students' needs for additional assistance, may help increase their chances of being successful in college.