Are hard work & good grades tickets to a top college?

Work hard, get good grades, and you’ll get into a good college or university—that’s the promise often made to young Americans. But does it really work that way?

Here’s a lesson from the Chicago Public Schools. Is it true in your area, too? Starting in 1999, the Chicago Public School system opened several new selective enrollment high schools and offered Advanced Placement courses at other high schools. The students who graduated from academically advanced programs like these did get better grades and scored well on standardized achievement tests. Many of these high achievers did not come from advantaged families or communities. Their hard work paid off—at least to that point, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Two thirds (64%) of the graduates from these advanced programs do well enough to qualify for admission to very selective or selective colleges and universities, but only 37% actually enroll in one. Many go to non-selective colleges or junior colleges. And some don’t go to college at all.

Why is this? Because hard work and good grades aren’t enough. As the report says, “having strong qualifications does not alter the reality that these students often come from families and neighborhoods that are less able to provide concrete support and knowledge about the college admissions process.” All in all, there are four reasons why academically qualified students don’t enroll in selective colleges. First, they don’t understand the range of colleges they could get into. Second, when they do apply to selective colleges, they often lack the “structured support” needed to work their way through the complex application process. Third, their advanced courses compete for their time. Fourth, they often don’t understand or know the range of financial aid they could get.

What’s your experience with hard work and good grades?

Do these traditional goals pay off?

Do you see a similar or different situation from Chicago’s in your area?


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Originally published at, an online experiment in civil dialogue on American values.

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