Study Indicates College Quality Matters for Graduation Rates

On September 12, the CUNY Office of Policy Research’s Higher Education Policy Seminar Series featured Harvard University Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Joshua Goodman. He is co-author with Sarah Cohodes, a doctoral student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, of a study that revealed that college quality is an important factor when it comes to timely college completion.

The study focused on Massachusetts, where an Adams Scholarship was made available to qualifying high school students at the beginning of their senior year of high school. Under the program, tuition is waived for qualifying students at fifteen community colleges, nine state colleges, and four University of Massachusetts campuses. Qualifying students still pay additional fees such as room and board and the scholarship cannot be used at any private college or university.

As a proxy for college quality, the researchers used Barron’s competitiveness ratings, which range from “not competitive” to “most competitive” in five categories. They noted that none of Massachusetts’ public institutions were included in Barron’s three highest categories. Most of the public four-year institutions fell into the fourth category and a few public four-year institutions and all the community colleges were ranked in the fifth category.

The researchers found that the scholarship pulled a number of students who would otherwise have attended more competitive private institutions to the public institutions. 2.9% of students chose not to attend schools ranked in the two highest categories and 1.3% chose to forego those in the third category. As the study concerned students who were “college ready,” any meaningful change in the graduation rate could be important.

The researchers reported three major findings:

  • Students who used the Adams Scholarships to attend in-state public institutions reduced their chance of graduating within four years by 26 percentage points. The use of the scholarships lowered college quality for those students by 1.1 standard deviations.
  • Poor understanding of the link between college quality and graduation rates suggested a need for better information for students, parents, and high schools.
  • The findings suggested a policy need to improve the State’s public institutions.

Although the paper did not detail what differentiates “quality colleges” from their less competitive peers in terms of programs or services, it did cite better funding as one factor. It suggested that the “resource gap” may have created disparities in “students’ access to coursework or to academic support necessary to complete such coursework.” In turn, those disparities could be reflected in graduation rates.

The researchers also observed that college quality requires measures beyond increased selectivity. They argued that there needs to be “deeper exploration” of the factors or barriers that preclude on-time graduation.

In the context of President Obama’s recent higher education policy initiative and increasingly robust scrutiny by accreditors, the findings of this paper lend greater urgency to developing approaches that improve higher education attainment.



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