High School Background Might Have More to Do With College Success Than Intelligence or Personality

A growing theme in education research is that having the right personality traits is as important as intelligence in academic success.

Smarts help, but they aren’t necessarily enough if you want an A. Rather, traits like conscientiousness that have to do with working hard and wanting to do a good job are just as important.

So if you’re smart and hard-working, that must be the magic combination, right?

Well, it turns out that might still not be enough. It may be that you have to go to the right high school too.

In a study published this month in PloS One, researchers from Croatia explored the roles of intelligence, personality and high school type on students’ later university success. To see how students’ high school experiences shaped college performance, the researchers considered two different kinds of high schools common in Croatia:

  • Gymnasium high schools: Academically oriented high schools that prepare students for university
  • Vocational high schools: High schools that prepare students for specific careers with or without university educations

What the study found was that students from gymnasium high schools went on to achieve greater academic success when they got to college. This in itself might not be especially surprising, but the interesting part was that the relationship between high school type and academic achievement didn’t just come down to differences in either intelligence or personality traits. In fact, high school type was a better predictor of academic success than either one of these individual characteristics.

It’s hard to directly translate this result into the context of other countries, but generally speaking, the study shows that the academic experiences students have in high school play a part in determining what students will get out of college, regardless of how intelligent or hard-working those students are.

Of course, that’s far from saying every individual student who goes to a less academically rigorous high schools is doomed when he or she gets to university. We’re talking in terms of broad statistical trends here.

But at a society-wide level, there’s an important message: if students have different academic opportunities when they’re young, they’re already going to be on an uneven playing field by the time they get to college, so we should think carefully about what different opportunities high-school students are having and what the consequences of those differences might be.

Image: Flickr/barnyz