Study Suggests Selective High Schools May Thwart Students’ Long-Term Success

Many parents who send their children to top-ranked high schools do so with the goal of preparing them for prestigious, high-paying careers later in life. A recent analysis published by the Association for Psychological Science, however, claims that attending a high school in which the majority of students are high-achievers may have adverse, long-term effects on some youth.

Researchers found that teens who attended high schools where a majority of students came from affluent households but were not academically competitive tended to have high levels of educational attainment, income, and occupational prestige as adults. Conversely, individuals who attended high schools where the majority of students were high-achievers but came from varying socioeconomic backgrounds tended to have low levels of educational attainment, income, and occupational prestige later in life.

The study’s authors conducted the analysis using statistics from Project TALENT, a database that contains a large amount of longitudinal data on high school students from over the last 60 years. They compared educational and career outcomes for 337,000 students 11 years after they graduated and, again, 50 years post-graduation to determine the results. The study bases academic performance on standardized test scores, though it is unclear how school “selectivity” is defined in the study.

According to researchers, the findings indicate that attending a selective high school may cause some students to feel inadequate compared to their high-achieving peers. These feelings of inadequacy may lead students to set lower expectations for themselves academically and professionally, they say. “The permanent [social] comparison seemed to harm students’ beliefs in their own abilities, and that was associated with serious consequences for their later careers,” lead researcher Richard Gollner explained in a press release.

As for those who attended schools where most students came from wealthy socioeconomic backgrounds but had lower levels of academic competition, the authors argue that these students may have achieved educational and occupational success because of the material resources their schools were able to provide.

As a next step, researchers plan to study the ways in which teachers at highly selective schools can counteract the negative effects of such social comparisons.