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THE SECRET BEHIND COLLEGE COMPLETION: New Report Uses Middle School Grades to Predict Students’ Likelihood of Earning College Degrees

Students who earn mostly As in middle school have a nearly 70 percent chance of completing college by age twenty-five while those earning mostly Bs have only a 30 percent chance, according to a new report from Third Way. The report, The Secret Behind College Completion: Girls, Boys, and the Power of Eighth Grade Grades, uses the predictive power of middle school grades to explain why women are more likely to obtain college degrees than men, as shown in the graph below. (Click on the image for a larger version.)


The report focuses on middle school grades because middle school grades predict high school grades, which then predict college success. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report finds that almost all students who earned As in middle school earned As or As and Bs in high school.

The report attributes this connection to the fact that high-performing middle school students tend to exhibit the same behavior patterns and academic performance in high school than they did in middle school. For example, they generally did more homework, were more likely to take Advanced Placement classes, and were less likely to encounter behavioral problems, such as frequent absences, tardiness, or suspensions as high school students.

For the most part, the students exhibiting more of these behaviors and faring better academically are girls. In fact, the report notes that girls’ academic performance advantage over boys is already “well established” by the eighth grade. As shown in the graph below taken from the report, eighth-grade girls are significantly more likely to earn As or As and Bs than eighth-grade boys. (Click on the image for a larger version.)


“Girls have a big advantage over boys in educational attainment, and this is largely because girls earn higher grades than boys,” the report notes. “This substantial academic performance advantage of girls translates directly into their much higher rates of college completion and educational attainment more generally.”

On the other hand, boys are much more likely to earn Cs or Cs and Ds in eighth grade than girls, making them much less likely to earn a college degree. According to the report, less than 10 percent of students who earn mostly Cs in middle school will complete a bachelor’s degree by the time they turn twenty-five years old. “Poor academic performance in middle school heavily disadvantages students who aspire to get a college degree,” the report notes.

In addition to its focus on middle school, the report also examines elementary school performance and finds sizeable gender gaps there as well. For example, kindergarten boys enjoy a slight lead over kindergarten girls in math—a gap that grows to about 0.25 standard deviations by third grade. Meanwhile, girls have about a 0.15 standard deviation advantage in reading at the beginning of kindergarten that mostly holds through the end of fifth grade.

The largest gap the report identifies in the early grades is a nearly 0.40 standard deviation in “social and behavioral skills”[1] that girls enjoy over boys at the start of kindergarten—a gap that grows to 0.53 by the end of fifth grade and is “considerably larger” than the gap between children from poor families and middle class families or the gap between black and white children. The report finds that the same general pattern exists in how teachers rate students’ progress in language and literacy, general knowledge of science and social studies, and mathematical thinking.

The report offers several reasons for the gender gap, including that boys are more negatively affected than girls by growing up in families with absent or less-educated fathers and by classrooms that lack a strong learning-oriented environment. Additionally, it finds that many adolescent boys “underinvest in education” because “out-of-date masculine stereotypes” depict academic excellence as unmasculine and, as a result, fail to understand the strong connection between effort in school and success in the job market.

Writing about the study for the New York Times, David Leonhardt, editor of “The Upshot,” says the problem “doesn’t simply involve men trying to overcome the demise of a local factory or teenage boys getting into trouble. It involves children so young that most haven’t even learned the word ‘gender.’ Yet their gender is already starting to cast a long shadow over their lives.”

The Secret Behind College Completion: Girls, Boys, and the Power of Eighth Grade Grades is available at

[1] According to the report, social and behavioral skills include attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, flexibility, organization, expressing feelings, ideas and opinions in positive ways, and showing sensitivity to the feelings of others.

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.