How Graduation Rates Shape College Choice

Graduation rates matter to politicians and college presidents. But how much do they matter to parents of prospective applicants?

Quite a bit, according to a report on a study released today by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Recently, two researchers at the institute designed a survey to determine how graduation rates shape consumers’ perceptions of colleges. In the experiment, one group of parents received basic facts (including costs and selectivity) about two public colleges in their state; the other group received the same information, as well as the graduation rates for each institution.

Providing graduation rates, the researchers found, increased the likelihood (by about 15 percentage points) that parents would choose the college with the higher graduation rate. Moreover, such information was most likely to influence the choices of parents who had relatively low incomes and little admissions savvy. More-affluent parents were less likely to change their preferences based on information about graduation rates.

Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow at the institute and a co-author of the report, said the results affirm the importance of providing families with clear data that can be used to compare colleges. “It’s heartening, to some extent, that these findings are the way that they are,” Mr. Kelly said. “The college-completion agenda is not about high-achieving students with well-off parents. It’s about guiding students who typically lag behind.”

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