Dwindling Resources for Instruction, More Than Weak Students, Explain Poor Graduation Rates, Scholars Say

December 07, 2009

Something has gone badly wrong at the nation's less-selective four-year public colleges, suggests a new paper from three economists. During the last 40 years, the high-school preparation of the students who enroll in those institutions has improved. And yet graduation rates at those institutions have generally stagnated or declined.

"If you want to understand the decline in college completion, it's a mistake to focus only on declines in student preparation," said Sarah E. Turner, a professor of education and economics at the University of Virginia and one of the paper's authors. "We were able to set that idea aside quite firmly."

The paper, "Why Have College Completion Rates Declined? An Analysis of Changing Student Preparation and Collegiate Resources," was published this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It examines data from two major federal longitudinal studies. One covered students who graduated from high school in 1972, and the other covered students who graduated from high school in 1992.

Ms. Turner and her co-authors—John Bound, a professor of economics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Michael F. Lovenheim, an assistant professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University—argue that while there was an increase in students attending college between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, almost all of the rise was absorbed by relatively unselective colleges whose financial resources were comparatively thin.

The researchers did find an increase in the number of weakly prepared students—those with low scores on the mathematics portion of the SAT and similar tests, according to the paper—who entered college. But almost all such students entered community colleges. The arrival of those students accounts for only about a third of the overall national decline in bachelor's-degree-completion rates, in the researchers' analysis.

What struck Ms. Turner and her colleagues was that relatively unselective four-year public colleges—those below the top 50 flagship institutions, in the paper's terms—actually saw modest improvements in their students' math SAT scores between 1972 and 1992, and yet college-completion rates still declined at those institutions.

Crowding at Less-Selective Colleges

"This is part of a pattern of what is known as cohort crowding," Ms. Turner said. "Think about what happens when a college sees a 20 percent increase in enrollment, but only a 10 percent increase in public subsidies, or no increase at all."

By contrast, Ms. Turner said, selective colleges have generally been immune from that kind of enrollment pressure. "When demand for a college education increases," she said, "private colleges and flagship public colleges usually don't increase enrollment. They just get more selective."

Analyzing federal data, Ms. Turner and her colleagues found that median instructional expenditures per student actually declined at less-selective public colleges between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, moving from $5,331 to $5,102. At the top 50 flagship public colleges, meanwhile, median instructional spending grew from $7,871 to $9,663 per student during the same period. (All figures are in constant 2007 dollars.)

Similarly, the average student-faculty ratio at the less-selective four-year public colleges grew from 25.5:1 to 29.1:1 between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, but at the flagships the ratio improved from 23.0:1 to 22.4:1.

"One of the big stories here is increased stratification," Ms. Turner said. "The most-selective institutions are gaining resources, but the picture is very different at other colleges."

Ms. Turner acknowledged that the data in this paper are relatively old (the second federal study wound down in 2000). But she said it is likely that similar patterns have continued in this decade. The continuing recession, she said, has brought a new wave of enrollment demand at precisely the same moment that most states are reducing support for public higher education.

The paper's argument broadly parallels that of Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Public Universities (Princeton University Press), a recent book that explored institutional causes of stagnant graduation rates. Other scholars, meanwhile, believe that the focus on graduation rates is misplaced, and even that too many students are attempting college in the first place.

In an e-mail message to The Chronicle on Monday, one of the authors of Crossing the Finish Line, William G. Bowen, praised the new paper for its attention to colleges' characteristics.

"This is an extremely important paper," said Mr. Bowen, who is president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. "There is obviously much more to be done in finding the resources that the less-selective four-year institutions, and the two-year institutions, need to help their students navigate the standard four-year program more successfully. Also, it would be helpful if these institutions focused more of their efforts on getting students through programs in a timely way."

Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability, said in an interview Monday that Ms. Turner's new paper is "powerful and interesting," and that it corresponds with many of the Delta Project's findings.

"At those less-selective institutions, the proportion of money spent on instructional services is going down, and the proportion of money spent on student support services is also going down," Ms. Wellman said. "Access doesn't always translate into success. We need investment strategies that can complement our attainment goals."