A long tradition of work in sociology and education is concerned with patterns of rigorous high school course taking, as course taking shapes students’ opportunities to learn and their college and career attainment and has the potential to increase equity. The quality of students’ high school course taking has also been a major focus of education policy reform dating back to the early 1980s. The potential for high school course taking patterns to increase and equalize educational opportunity is particularly important given the stagnation of college completion rates, wide and growing socioeconomic gaps in college entry and completion, and the increasing income and educational inequality of the past several decades. In this dissertation, I present three papers examining changes over time in high school curricular intensity for nationally representative cohorts of students in the HS&B, NELS, and ELS data.
In Chapter 2, I develop and validate a new measure of curricular intensity that identifies and accounts for how curricular intensity has changed over time. In Chapter 3, I find that despite increased curricular intensity between 1982 and 2004, income- and education-based gaps did not narrow, and the association between higher levels of parental education and higher curricular intensity increased across cohorts. In Chapter 4, I find that students with higher curricular intensity were consistently more likely to enter postsecondary education and less likely to delay postsecondary entry in each cohort. Students with higher curricular intensity were also less likely to enter 2-year or for-profit institutions as compared to 4-year institutions, and the protective influence of higher curricular intensity against entering 2-year or for-profit institutions increased across cohorts, despite educational expansion. The change in odds of each outcome associated with a 1-unit increase in curricular intensity is about one-third to one-half the size of the change in odds associated with going from the lowest parental income or education to the highest and is even larger for delayed postsecondary entry.