The Connection Between Quality and Completion

College completion is a complicated puzzle. Many factors—such as the preparedness of students who enroll—may help explain why a particular college has a high or low completion rate.

But how much does institutional quality affect student outcomes? A lot, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Joshua S. Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy, and Sarah Cohodes, a Ph.D. student, analyzed the educational outcomes of students who enrolled in Massachusetts public colleges through a scholarship program that waives tuition for students with test scores above specific thresholds. In other words, students who are qualified to attend private or out-of-state colleges of “higher quality,” as defined by measures such as on-time graduation rates and selectivity. The researchers compared the outcomes of scholarship recipients to those of similar students with test scores just below the thresholds for eligibility.

Although the scholarship program has succeeded in keeping more high-achieving students in Massachusetts, it did not help them graduate on time, the researchers conclude in a working paper. “Choosing a lower-quality college significantly lowers on-time completion rates, a result driven by high-skilled students who would otherwise have attended higher-quality colleges,” they write. “For the marginal student, enrolling at an in-state public college lowered the probability of graduating on time by more than 40 percent.”

The authors describe their findings as the “first clear causal evidence on the impact of college quality” on student outcomes. Although the study doesn’t illuminate every piece of the completion puzzle, it complicates the notion that improving the composition of incoming classes will automatically enhance institutional quality.

Discussions of college “quality” can be tricky, however. The working paper includes the observation that students are willing to forgo quality for relatively small amounts of money. This assumes, though, that students define or perceive quality in the same way that researchers and policy makers do. Surely, many do not.

Moreover, families often weigh quality against other considerations, like cost and distance. As the authors concede, parents and students may have good reasons for reaching for even a modest scholarship. “It is possible,” they write, “that some students were so myopic or financially constrained that switching into scholarship-eligible institutions was a rational decision.”

Then again, nobody ever said that choosing a college was an entirely rational process, now did they? Read about the study and download the working paper here.

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