Study: Attending a more selective college doesn't improve graduation prospects

The likelihood of graduating is 'closely predicted by student background,' says a co-author of the new study, which is calling into question some of the ideas the Obama administration has been touting.

Mel Evans/AP/File
A person walks with an umbrella at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., Dec. 9, 2013.

Attending a more selective college won’t boost an individual’s chances of graduating. That’s the finding of a new study – one that calls into question some of the ideas the Obama administration has been touting in its efforts to boost college graduation rates.

The study looked at a nationally representative sample of students at 420 four-year public and private nonprofit institutions. After accounting for differences in students’ backgrounds, it found that attending a more selective college, as measured by the college’s average SAT score, had negligible effects on whether a student would graduate within six years.

Many researchers have argued that students should consider attending the most selective school they can get into, partly because these schools do a better job of getting their students across the finish line. But “there’s not some kind of secret sauce,” says Paul Attewell, professor of sociology and urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) and co-author of the peer-reviewed study in the American Educational Research Journal.

While colleges can do many things to help students succeed, such as offering better academic advising, “graduation is very closely predicted by student background,” Professor Attewell says.

Research on a theory called “undermatching” has shown that many minority and low-income students often don’t apply to Ivy League or other top-tier schools, even though they could qualify to attend and could get strong financial support and thrive there.

That has given momentum to efforts – some of them touted by President Obama – to encourage high-achieving, low-income students to consider attending more-selective schools. The College Board, through a project called Realize Your College Potential, has been sending out customized packets to such students with financial aid information and sample lists of the range of schools they should consider, including more-selective schools.

Attewell says he’s not a critic of those efforts, because “there can be other benefits, especially at the most prestigious schools, [such as] the cachet and your ability to get jobs.” But he hopes that people won’t get the idea that broadly speaking, the selectivity of an institution is key to boosting one’s chances of graduating.

At its worst, the emphasis on undermatching might “incentivize students to spend more money and take on more debt,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Students might be offered a strong discount to attend a more selective school, for instance, but that aid often disappears if they struggle with their grades, so to stay they start borrowing, she says.

Attewell, Professor Goldrick-Rab, and a number of other researchers are also troubled by an initiative at the US Department of Education that will rate colleges based on their graduation rates and other factors – and eventually may offer rewards and sanctions based on those ratings.

Mr. Obama has said it’s important to highlight information for consumers about both the costs of college and the outcomes, such as graduation rates and employment of alumni. A White House fact sheet says the ratings “will compare colleges with similar missions and identify colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as colleges that are improving their performance.”

But round tables about the rating system, which is to be revealed this fall, generated the following view: “The idea that what the colleges [with higher graduation rates] are achieving is largely due to who attends them is not being given sufficient attention by the Department of Education,” Goldrick-Rab says.

By emphasizing graduation rates, she says, the process risks that colleges will boost their selectivity to boost their graduation rates, and that would “hurt college access.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Denise Horn defends the process for developing the rating system: “We are listening actively to recommendations and concerns, which includes a national listening tour of 80-plus meetings with 4,000 participants. We hear over and over – from students and families, college presidents and high school counselors, low-income students, business people and researchers – that, done right, a ratings system will push innovations and systems changes that will benefit students,” she writes in an e-mail to the Monitor.

The best way to boost the graduation rate of low-income students would be for states to reinvest in the underresourced public institutions they attend, Goldrick-Rab and others say.

Subsidies for public higher education have hit a 10-year low, reports the Delta Cost Project of the American Institutes for Research (AIR). 

The CUNY study also challenges a theory, favored by critics of affirmative action, that students who are “overmatched” – by attending a school with much higher average SAT scores than their own – have less chance of success. We find “no evidence that being ‘overmatched’ ... does any harm. You’re just as likely to graduate,” Attewell says.

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