Information Brief 2012-31

High School Math, ACT Benchmarks, and College Degree Completion

The highest level of math coursework taken in high school is an important indicator of likely success in college.1 For ACT-tested 2003 high school graduates who immediately enrolled in a four-year college in fall 2003, the six-year bachelor’s degree completion rate was 12 percentage points higher for students who took high school math courses beyond Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II than for those who did not (67% vs. 55%).

However, doing well in courses that are rigorous is more important for students to gain the skills they need to be ready for college-level work.2 Students who took Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II in high school and met the ACT Mathematics Benchmark had higher bachelor’s degree completion rates than those who took math beyond Algebra II but did not meet the Benchmark. Similar results were seen when degree completion rates were examined by both high school science courses taken and ACT Science Benchmark attainment.

Bachelor’s Degree Completion Rates by High School Mathematics Coursework Taken and ACT Mathematics Benchmark Attainment

Solid lines are for those who met the Benchmark and dashed lines are for those who did not meet the Benchmark.

Student GroupYear 4Year 5Year 6
Took coursework beyond Algebra I, Geometry, & Algebra II; benchmark met48%68%74%
Did not take coursework beyond Algebra I, Geometry, & Algebra II; benchmark met41%61%67%
Took coursework beyond Algebra I, Geometry, & Algebra II; benchmark not met30%49%57%
Did not take coursework beyond Algebra I, Geometry, & Algebra II; benchmark not met24%43%49%

Note: Based on data from a random sample of 18,860 ACT-tested 2003 high school graduates who enrolled in a four-year college in fall 2003. Degree information was obtained from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Degree completion rates were model-based estimates. For a more detailed description of the study, see the full ACT Research Report 2012-2.

1Adelman, C. (2006). The toolbox revisited: Paths to degree completion from high school through college. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

2 ACT. (2007). Rigor at risk: Reaffirming quality in the high school core curriculum. Iowa City, IA: Author.

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