The IB Diploma Programme: Improving Postsecondary Options for Students

The odds were stacked against Brandon White. Raised by a hard-working single mom, he grew up in a doublewide trailer in a low-income neighborhood in Panama City, Florida. Brandon watched his two older siblings drop out of high school during their junior year – and he would later see his youngest brother do the same. But Brandon’s story turned out differently from those of his siblings. Inspired by his mother, who told him that he shouldn’t miss out on an opportunity to further himself, he made a decision that changed his life: he signed up for the IB Diploma Programme (DP) at his high school.

That one step set him forth on a journey into an educational experience that taught him to be a critical thinker and encouraged him to question what he was learning along the way. Ultimately, the DP prepared him to become a first-generation college student with a full scholarship at the University of Florida, where he would also later attend law school.

Brandon’s story is far from unusual.

 “First-generation students in particular find the IB to be a game-changer because it prepares them well for a variety of opportunities that may come their way as a result of having attained an IB education,” says Marie Vivas, senior development manager at the International Baccalaureate (IB). In the United States, while 60% of schools offering an IB programme are Title I schools (as of 2012-2013), one of the biggest misconceptions about the IB and its programmes is that it is only for affluent students.

The IB Research department recently examined the university pathways of low-income and underrepresented minority students in Title I schools (n=20,403), finding that DP students in Title I schools enrolled in college at a similar rate to all DP students in US public schools. When compared against the national average for low-income student enrollment in postsecondary education, DP students enrolled at a much higher rate (79 percent compared to 46 percent). In addition, African-American DP students from Title I schools were found to enroll in college at a higher rate (87 percent) than any other racial or ethnic group in the study.

“What’s really awesome is that it doesn’t matter if a student is in an inner city public school or the International School in Geneva, they are all being nurtured with the skills and knowledge universities are looking for,” says Vivas.

Source: Gordon, VanderKamp and Halic, 2015

An example of the DP’s long-standing success with low-income and minority students can be found in the Chicago Public Schools system, which introduced the programme in the 1990s into 12 of the city’s high schools. CCSR studied the impact of Chicago’s IB programmes on the postsecondary outcomes and experiences of the school’s DP graduates (n=18,075) compared to non-DP graduates, across a four-year period, from 2003 to 2007. The study found DP graduates were more likely to enroll in selective colleges and to complete their courses successfully. Their findings also indicated students were better prepared to succeed with college coursework, were more motivated, and had better time-management skills.

Source: Coca et al., 2012

“IB programmes bring confidence to students, and they bring a love of learning, which is something we often don’t talk about in higher education enough -- actually wanting to learn,” says Kevin Hudson, assistant director for college opportunity in the office of the provost at Princeton University. “Low-income students who’ve completed DP bring that ability to take on a challenge, be survivors, and to know they can achieve.”

A non-IB commissioned study by a researcher at RAND Corporation set out to determine if DP enrollment by minority and low-income students in Chicago Public Schools has causal implications for high-school academic performance, graduation, and college enrollment. The study found that enrolling in DP increases the probability of high-school graduation by 20 percent, increases ACT scores by one-half of a standard deviation (about 1.7 ACT points out of a total 36 possible), and increases a student’s probability of enrolling in college by 38 percent.

The positive results can be credited to the rigors of the coursework and curriculum. The DP requires six courses over a two-year period in addition to the DP core, which includes community service, a theory of knowledge course, and a 4,000-word self-directed research paper. “That’s what really sets us apart. It’s a whole framework that says to students ‘It’s not just getting an A, it’s how you learn and what you learn,” says Vivas.

The IB's signature “Learner Profile” aims to help students to inquire about their world and be risk-takers, so when they get to college they are ready to have the difficult conversations about social and global issues, and finding ways to work together to solve problems and further learning. “We are saying to students we are trying to build a global citizen and not just a specialist in math,” says Vivas.

The Education Policy Improvement Center at the University of Oregon recently conducted a study comparing IB and non-IB students enrolled in the honors program of the university. Although researchers found no difference in university grade point averages between the two groups, DP graduates were significantly more likely to persist and to complete college than their non-DP counterparts. Qualitative data also indicated that DP graduates were better able to adjust to the rigors of university coursework; students specifically highlighted skills gained through participation in the DP, including critical-thinking, time management and research skills.

“All IB courses pay attention to content and type of thinking to analyze content,” says David Conley, director of the Education Policy Improvement Center at Oregon. “When high-school students have to engage in this type of process it gives them a different perspective in social sciences and that type of meta-cognitive learning leads to a better thinker in social sciences.”

The research backs up what Brandon White says he experienced first-hand – a confidence through a learning experience that didn’t ask, “Do you want to go to college,” but rather “What college do you plan to attend?” “I developed expectations that I never had before. I didn’t doubt it, and that confidence was developed through the DP,” says Brandon.

Multiple college acceptance letters added to that self-assurance and once at the University of Florida, Brandon found that saying he had taken part in the DP in high school conveyed discipline, organizational skills and preparedness to succeed at the postsecondary level. “That was different for me, and I welcomed it with open arms.”

IB students are diverse, critical thinkers coming from many backgrounds who are impacting US college campuses. To learn how (or more), please visit