Panel Paper: Full speed ahead: How college-level coursework in high school increases the depth of study in college

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Water Tower (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Oded Gurantz1, Michael Drew Hurwitz2 and Jonathan Smith2, (1)Stanford University, (2)The College Board

The U.S. higher education is highly decentralized, providing universities incredible latitude in preparing college graduates. Yet, there is little causal research on how course sequencing and associated policies impact collegiate pathways. Understanding this process is critical for institutions to produce a well-trained labor force and educate students in a way consistent with their goals and mission.

This paper fills this knowledge gap by examining how institutional credit policies for Advanced Placement (AP) exams changes student investment in particular courses and fields. We use data on Florida high school graduates between 2004 and 2009, linked to college transcripts for Florida public colleges. We use a regression discontinuity design that compares students whose underlying continuous AP scores are nearly identical but result in different integer scores. Using the same identification strategy, previous work found that higher AP scores decreased time-to-degree (Avery, Smith, & Hurwitz, forthcoming), and shifted college major among the highest performing students (Avery, Gurantz, Hurwitz, & Smith, 2016).

We find that students with higher AP scores are quicker to take upper-level courses, and invest more deeply into their course of study. For example, a student who earns a 3 on the AP Calculus AB exam, where Florida colleges offer credit, are 25 percentages points less likely to take introductory Calculus and 30 percentage points less likely to take a math course classified below Calculus, likely as the credit helps avoid remedial misclassification issues observed in many college contexts (Scott-Clayton, Crosta, & Belfield, 2014). Students also progress more quickly in their math curriculum, being 15 percentage points more likely to take higher level math in their first year.

Our main specification stacks results using all AP STEM exams across thresholds, with short bandwidths to avoid overlapping boundaries. When using AP thresholds that offer college credit, we find that surpassing a threshold increases first-year credits by 0.4 units within the AP exam field (i.e., higher-level Biology for those taking AP Biology), as well as increases STEM units broadly by 0.6 units. These results are equivalent to roughly a 10 to 20 percentage point increase in the likelihood of taking an additional course. Robustness tests using AP thresholds that offer no credit produce null results. After four years students continue to show higher investment in the AP exam field, with additional evidence that passing credit-granting thresholds increases the likelihood of taking 9 or more STEM courses (the upper quartile of STEM achievement) by three percentage points. These results suggest that early college coursework has a causal impact on the depth of human capital investment.

These preliminary results show the impact of early college credit on postsecondary pathways, with future analyses to investigate additional measures of depth and breadth of study. Our findings show that opportunities to obtain college-level coursework, whether through AP, dual enrollment, IB, or early college high schools, can serve as a way for students and colleges to produce college graduates that aligns with institutional, social, or economic priorities.