The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How much does a college matter in getting a student to commencement?

(Nick Tomecek/AP/Northwest Florida Daily)

In a Washington Post article examining the admissions process at the University of Maryland, the reporter, Nick Anderson, mentioned that instead of rejecting some applicants, U-Md. defers them to the spring semester to “fill slots on campus that open up midyear.” Left unsaid was that one of the reasons those slots appear is because students drop out of school.

Most students apply to college with every intention of finishing. But rarely discussed in the frenzy around the admissions process at this time of year is the large number of college students who drop out with some credits but no degree. Fewer than 40 percent of students enrolling for the first time at a four-year college graduate in four years. Even allowing an extra two years for changed majors or time off for illness or family circumstances, fewer than two-thirds graduate within six years.

The national debates over higher education — who goes, how much the government should subsidize tuition and how much debt students should take on — largely center on the outcome of the college degree in the economy. But if students never complete a degree, the fact that they went to college is largely irrelevant. Rarely do you see a job ad ask for college credits over a degree. Getting across the finish line matters.

And while the United States has done an admirable job over the last three decades expanding access to higher education — nearly 70 percent of high school seniors enroll in college three months after graduating — the nation hasn’t quite figured out how to get them to complete a degree.

Why students who secure a high school diploma can’t finish a college degree has fascinated higher education researchers and economists for years. Studies have attempted to parse whether it’s the student that makes the institution or the institution that makes the student when it comes to graduating. It’s a combination, of course, but an academic study published recently in the Journal of Labor Economics finds that college selection matters more than we might think, particularly when it comes to academically marginal students.

The study, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board, tracked thousands of high school graduates over six years in Georgia, where the state’s public colleges have hard cutoffs for test scores that are well known to high school students. At the time of the study, the state’s four-year colleges required that SAT-takers score at least 830 to be admitted. Students who don’t clear that bar go to a two-year college, or not at all.

Given that most state universities consider a variety of factors, including grades, test scores and other activities in their admissions decisions, the Georgia data provided researchers clear distinctions for their study. There is relatively little difference between students who score just above or just below 830 on the SAT, so the researchers could more easily discover the impact of attending a specific college on a student.

According to the study, about half of the students who scored above the cutoff completed a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with just 17 percent who barely missed the cutoff. “Our estimates reject the hypothesis that low-skilled students should be discouraged from choosing four-year colleges because they are incapable of completing degrees at such institutions,” the authors concluded.

Often, students who are told they can’t hack it at a four-year campus are encouraged to go to a community college. But the study found that few of the marginal students who ended up getting a bachelor’s would have completed their two-year degree if denied access to a four-year college. That finding adds to a body of research that shows students who “undermatch” — those who choose not to attend the best college they can get into — harm their overall chances of graduating on time or at all.

Does this mean that students who can’t get in to a four-year college shouldn’t consider a two-year school? Not necessarily. But it’s critical for students who start at a community college to ask about completion and transfer rates. Data recently released by the Education Department show that community colleges are doing a better job at getting their students to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year college than previously thought.

For years, the federal government’s method for calculating graduation rates failed to adequately count many community college students. That measure, based largely on students who attend full-time and don’t transfer, found just 20 percent of community college students graduated from the college where they started within three years.

By tweaking the way it calculates graduation rates to include those who attend part-time and eventually earn a degree at a four-year college, the Education Department now captures more kinds of community college students. With these new measures, the Education Department has found that some 60 percent of community college students graduate or transfer within eight years.

While that is an improvement over what was known previously, 60 percent is nothing to celebrate. The pipeline from high school graduation to college commencement is full of plenty of leaks. Students and parents in the middle of the college search shouldn’t assume students will earn a degree no matter where they go to school. Students drop out of college for many reasons, but the campus itself plays a much more critical role than many students and parents consider when weighing admissions offers.