Does High School Matter?

Our time spent in high school can be a source of deep resentment or nostalgic joy, assuming we haven’t forgotten about it altogether. But as teenagers become adults and eventually working professionals, how much does high school really contribute to their human development and financial, social, and professional well-being? People have been trying to find out over the past few years, and their results are just as varied as our responses to high school memories.

Studies examining middle- and high-school success as a predictor for adult behavior go back decades. According to Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson, the dumb jock stereotype, one of our favorites, could be mostly a myth. Particularly with girls, Stevenson has found a link between high school sports and university enrollment and ensuing labor participation. In her research, she found that a 10 percentage-point increase in high school sport participation due to Title IX, which outlawed gender discrimination at countless schools, led directly to a one-to-two percentage-point increase in their participation in the work force. But we all know there is more to high school than sports.

Considering popularity is prime social currency in any high school, researchers have attempted to track how that popularity translates into long-term success. Dr. Joseph P. Allen of the University of Virginia has studied these links extensively and has found that the top-tier high-school social class, which he gauges as roughly 20 percent of a high-school class, has proven more susceptible to problematic behavior. According to his research, this top tier is more likely to drink by age 14, as well as commit vandalism, smoke marijuana, and shoplift. Of course, many people don’t need research studies to dismiss the benefits of high school popularity. Studies confirming a link between extra-curricular activity in high school and adult success only further muddle any connection between high school and the real world.

The College Board, which manages American standardized tests, like the SATs, has found that high school grades are the best predictor for college success. But what about life in the real world?  Other studies show that the link between high school and that real world is fairly arbitrary. Especially considering birth weight could be just as important a factor. Paul Kimmelman’s interesting ideas regarding the link are expressed rather extensively in a 2008 post on the New York Times’ Freakonomics blog. In the post, the Luminary Micro CTO and guest blogger introduced a number of new variables into deconstructing these links, primarily involving the narrow methodology of high school curricula, people who enter creative fields, and ingrained bias from the academic institutions who study these links. Not to mention the elusive definition of success. So does high school really matter? Depends on whom you ask.

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