Anyone who’s been through the admissions process knows that getting into college can be extremely competitive and often agonizing, with the most elite colleges accepting less than one in 10 applicants. But what happens after students get settled into school — or, rather, why do some students continue their high-achieving trajectory, while others, who’ve passed through the same admissions barriers, fall by the wayside?

Time management, unsurprisingly, is a major factor, but so are elements outside of students’ control, such as language barriers and mental health, according to a study published this week in the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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The top 10 percent of high-performers in four-year colleges can most likely attribute their achievement to a cocktail of skilled time management and high expectations for their future time investment and academic performance, the paper found. They also spent, on average, 4.3 hours more on studying than did the bottom 10 percent.

Those at the top, however, were less likely to be working paid jobs or dealing with depression or other mental health issues than the bottom performers. The lowest 10 percent were less likely to take advantage of the free counseling and tutoring resources available on campus, and more often blamed themselves for their inability to keep up, rather than suggesting that their university could do more to help them.

Philip Oreopoulos, an economics professor at the University of Toronto and one of the study’s authors, posited that the low-performing students either weren’t able to allot time to seek help with their studies, or felt they couldn’t even make time to prepare for such counseling or tutoring sessions in the first place.

“They’re shy in going to see the [teaching assistant] or the instructor, because they don’t feel confident, or they don't feel prepared enough beforehand... and they're afraid of revealing they're not prepared,” he said. Oreopoulos added that the problem may arise from the fact that “college is the opposite of high school.” More specifically, he said, “In high school, you’re expected to be in class for about 30 hours per week and do homework for 10 hours per week. In college, it's the opposite. You have about 10 hours of class, and you’re expected to do 30 hours of homework.”

Put simply, with more freedom comes more responsibility and the need to adeptly manage one's free time. 

Oreopoulos and his fellow authors, from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Toronto, piggybacked off of their own previous research — a survey of 6,000 first-year students at the latter university, paired with administrative data on their demographic information and academic achievements. In thar initial study, they found students’ first-year performance to be closely related to their high school grades, but also driven by conscientiousness, motivation and expected study hours.

But even when controlling for high school performance, the authors noted wide disparities in college performance. In the new study, the researchers noted that how well they fared in the first semester appeared to have a compounding effect on how they viewed the rest of their college careers, something the authors called the “academic trap.” Namely, when they can’t manage their time, their satisfaction with their lives plummets and their stress levels rise, throwing a 4.0 even further out of reach.

While the newer paper recommended that colleges undertake more “proactive guidance” and “quicker response to catch early poor performance,” it might be a sign that the one-fits-all approach to post-secondary education might be leaving some students behind.

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As the number of individuals enrolling in four-year post-secondary degree programs has climbed 46 percent to more than 10.5 million between 2000 and 2013, the portion of four-year degree students who’ve graduated on time in that period has climbed at a much slower rate, only to plateau at slightly under 40 percent.

And it’s no secret that student debt has followed a far more staggering upward trend, and some have pointed to the very student support services the study said low-performing students often ignored, and that the study itself recommended beefing up in response, as a reason for rising tuition. Meanwhile, the median annual salary of a four-year degree for the bottom 25th percentile has mirrored that of a high school graduate for nearly half a century, according to a 2014 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

“It’s a complicated question and an important one to ask,” Oreopoulos said, when asked whether the study evidenced that not every high school grad ought to pursue a four-year degree. “If the decision is to stop at high school, the existing research still strongly suggests there's some benefit of going to college for virtually everyone. But that doesn’t mean everyone should get a B. A. in the arts.”