How Much Does High School Matter? High School Classes and Subsequent College Performance

22 Pages Posted: 14 May 2013

See all articles by Greg Ferenstein

Greg Ferenstein


Brad Hershbein

W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research

Date Written: February 28, 2013


We investigate how high school instruction in certain subjects is related to academic performance in college in the same courses. We find that high school exposure has only a mild association with college grades after controlling for academic, demographic, and individual-level variables. We examine most of the popular courses taken in college that are typically not required in most high schools, and find that a year of exposure in high school to physics, psychology, economics, and sociology is associated with changes in grades for the same college course of between 0.003 and 0.2 points (on a four-point scale), none of which is statistically significant. Calculus, the exception, has a moderate association, with about a half- letter-grade improvement (0.49 points). Our results are consistent with decades of smaller scale research based on individual high schools or college classes. We discuss reasons why high school course-taking can, in many instances, have a small impact on college performance. Finally, our results call into question the effectiveness of policy interventions that do not link high school outcomes to college performance.

Keywords: high school, college, course-taking, academic performance, calculus, critical thinking, argument

Suggested Citation

Ferenstein, Gregory and Hershbein, Brad, How Much Does High School Matter? High School Classes and Subsequent College Performance (February 28, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Gregory Ferenstein

Independent ( email )

Brad Hershbein (Contact Author)

W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research ( email )

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