March 1 2018
(Reuters Health) – High school students who are responsible and have solid reading and writing skills may be more likely to succeed in college and go on to snag a high-paying, prestigious job than their classmates who slack off, a new study confirms.
It’s not necessarily a surprise that hard work in high school can pay off. But the current study takes this idea a step further, following students for half a century to see if this idea holds up even after controlling for several other factors that can independently impact future success like students’ personality traits and their parents’ income and education levels.
“School matters at so many levels and can lay the foundation for a successful life, but the reasons why are something of a puzzle,” said lead study author Marion Spengler of the University of Tubingen in Germany.
“One piece of the complex puzzle might be the specific behaviors and characteristics that students manifest in school, such as being interested in what the teacher says and doing their homework and school assignments,” Spengler said by email.
The effects were small, however, and the results for a large group of students might not necessarily apply to every kid in high school, Spengler cautioned.
Researchers examined data from the Project Talent study, a nationally representative survey of U.S. high school students that started in 1960 when kids were 16 years old on average.
The current study included data on 346,660 people who completed the original survey in high school, as well as follow-up surveys completed by 81,912 of them 11 years later and by 1,952 of them 50 years later.
To assess school behaviors and skills, the high school surveys asked questions about things like how often students keep up-to-date with assignments, have difficulty expressing themselves on exams, or get easily distracted when reading.
Students also completed assessments of personality traits and cognitive abilities.
More questions touched on parents’ socioeconomic status by asking about things like family income, the number of books in the home, whether students had their own bedroom, and the father’s job status.
Boys were much more likely to achieve educational and economic success than girls, and affluent students also did better than poor students.
“Both parental socioeconomic status and student sex had larger effects on 11 and 50 year outcomes than student behaviors in high school,” said Dr. Caroline Kistin, a researcher at Boston University School of Medicine who wasn’t involved in the study.
“These findings are consistent with prior work that has demonstrated disparities in opportunities and outcomes for children based on factors such as income, sex, and race,” Kistin said by email.
Researchers only had data on race and ethnicity for some participants, and then the students could only be identified as white or non-white.
Most participants also dropped out of the study over the years, and those who still responded 50 years after high school tended to be more intelligent and from more affluent homes than the people who left the study.
“It is possible that interest and engagement in high school helps students progress on to college,” Kistin said.
“It is also possible, however, that there are other factors at play,” Kistin added. “For instance, we are unable to determine whether there was a difference in school quality that may influence both student engagement and future opportunity.”