Low-income students who are academically marginal are more likely to complete college when they forgo two-year institutions and choose higher-quality four-year institutions than they do ordinarily, according to a new study released recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The authors of the study—titled “College Access, Initial College Choice and Degree Completion”—say their research is consistent with prior research that found students suffer a graduation rate “penalty” that reduces their chances of graduation when they go to a two-year instead of a four-year college.
The study also found that academic high fliers aren’t the only ones who benefit when they seek to “overmatch”—that is, enroll in a college where their peer group is made up of students who are stronger academically.
“The key takeaway is precisely college quality matters to low-income, lower-performing students, not just high-performing ones,” Joshua Goodman, lead author of the study and Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, told Diverse.
He said the study—like others before it—suggests that students should “make choices that expand the set of college options available to them.”
“For many students, choosing a campus with a higher completion rate will increase the chance of completing their own degrees,” Goodman said.
The study comes at a time when scholars continue to probe the degree to which institutional quality impacts graduation rates for students from families of lesser economic means.
Some scholars have concluded that college selectivity doesn’t have much of an impact on a low-income student’s chance of graduation. Others maintain that it matters so much that students should make a conscious effort to gain entry into more competitive colleges to boost their chances of completion.
Goodman’s study falls in the latter camp.
“The evidence we present is inconsistent with recent attempts to argue that college quality and ‘undermatch’ do not affect graduation rates,” the study states. “We believe this is some of the first clear evidence that graduation rates improve when students ‘overmatch’ by choosing a college where the level of academic skill greatly exceeds his or her own.”
Goodman did the study in conjunction with researchers from the College Board. They looked at admission and completion patterns among students of varying academic abilities in Georgia as measured by the SAT, which is the College Board’s college entrance exam.
They also examined what they referred to as an “understudied” factor that adds another layer of complexity to the college application process—and that is the “test score thresholds” that colleges use—sometimes openly and sometimes quietly—in admitting students.
About one in five colleges uses such thresholds, according to the study. And they are used by public college systems in such states as California, Texas and Florida.
The researchers focus on Georgia’s state university system, known as GSUS, which publicly announces minimum SAT scores used to admit first-year students. Specifically, the threshold requires students to score at least 430 in critical reading and at least 400 in math in order to gain admittance.
“As a result, such thresholds play an important role in access to the state’s public four-year college sector,” the study states.
Using complex formulae, the researchers found that access to four-year public colleges “diverts students largely from two-year colleges,” though they determined that some of those students would have gone to other four-year colleges or no college at all.
They also found that enrollment in four-year public colleges over the other choices “substantially increases bachelor’s degree completion rates, by about thirty percentage points, and even more so for low-income students.”
The researchers say they document “substantial college enrollment effects generated by the use of test score thresholds as part of the admissions process.”
The researchers find further that students who are denied access to the four-year public sector may not have other four-year options available in terms of price and quality.
Since “first” SAT scores impact enrollment, it could be that some students are not retaking the SAT often enough to get above the admission threshold, the researchers say.
They say concerns about pushing low-income students into higher quality colleges may be “ill-founded.”
“Our results suggest that ‘overmatching,’ or enrolling in a college where one is substantially less academically skilled than one’s peers, is actually beneficial for students, at least in terms of degree completion,” the study states.
They say their findings reinforce prior research that emphasized the need for students to make “test-taking and application choices that do not restrict their available postsecondary options.”
“In settings where thresholds are publicly known, this implies that students falling below those thresholds might be encouraged to retake the relevant exam, either through information campaigns or reductions in the costs of retaking,” the study states.
“More generally, students should be encouraged to expand their college application portfolios in order to improve the quality of the college options available to them.”
The researchers also deal with the one “potential unintended consequence” of President Barack Obama’s proposal to make community college free for a large portion of the student population.
“Lowering the price of community college may improve college enrollment and degree completion for students who would not otherwise have attended college,” the study concedes. “By changing the relative price of the two- and four-year sectors, such a proposal may, however, actually lower degree completion rates for students drawn out of the four-year and into the two-year sector.
“Our results suggest that price reform might need to be accompanied by quality reform, if possible, in order to avoid such unintended consequences,” the study states.
Diverse asked Goodman what advice he would give to academically marginal low-income students who were intrigued by the idea of free community college if he were their parent who just happens to be a researcher.
“As a parent, I would encourage my child to enroll in the highest quality college that they could afford and be admitted to,” Goodman said. “This doesn’t mean ignoring the financial side of things, which clearly matters.
“I take the notion of free community college very seriously. That may be quite beneficial to students for whom that lowered cost makes the difference between attending and not attending any college.
“I would, however, be more careful if I were a student deciding between a community college and a four-year option,” Goodman continued. “I’d want such students to think carefully about whether the lowered price of the two-year option is sufficiently important to forgo the opportunity to start at a four-year college.
“For some students it may be, but for some the institutional differences might not be worth the savings.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at dcwriter360 at yahoo dot com. Or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.