First Degree Earns: The Impact of College Quality on College Completion Rates

College pennants line the halls of most high-performing charters. Selection Day (when students announce the colleges they’ve chosen to attend) feels much like NFL Draft Day. But, even though these students—prepared as they are—matriculate to college, graduation is far from ensured (as the Houston-based YES Prep charter network and KIPP have discovered). This study from Harvard’s Joshua Goodman and Sarah Cohodes offers perspective as to why these low-income, yet high-performing students may stumble: It comes down to college quality (not necessarily college affordability). The authors examined the impacts of the Adams Scholarship—which offers free tuition at Massachusetts public colleges for those who score in the top quartile of the state test—on college completion. They found that students who were induced by the scholarship to attend Bay State public universities (and forego a higher-quality private or out-of-state option) were 26 percentage points less likely to graduate. These students don’t drop out, then, because they enroll in colleges that are too hard; they drop out because they pick colleges that aren’t hard enough. (Thomas Sowell may not agree, but Paul Tough makes a similar point in his recent book: How Children Succeed—and others have as well.) Educators: This is yet another reason to push your students to set their sights high and push themselves to reach their full potential.

SOURCE: Sarah Cohodes and Joshua Goodman, First Degree Earns: The Impact of College Quality on College Completion Rates (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Kennedy School, August 2012).

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