The Cost of Higher Access: Harry Stille’s Data

There are two persons of radically different political perspectives whose single-minded devotion to gathering and disseminating data on higher education set them apart from the rest of us: Tom Mortenson of Post Secondary Higher Education Opportunity, and Harry Stilles, of the Higher Education Research/Policy Center. Tom is a self-described “Minnesota socialist” dedicated to improving higher-education access, while Harry is a decidedly more conservative retired professor and legislator from South Carolina dedicated to increasing efficiency and improving quality. Higher education benefits from having both of them gather and publish data.

Today, I want to talk about some recent data published by Harry. Harry has come up with a way of measuring by state the degree of admissions selectivity. He looks at the percentage of students ranking in the top 10 percent of their high-school class, plus the SAT composite score for those at the 25th percentile in the distribution of such scores. He sums data across the many state colleges and universities in each state to get statewide average figures.

According to Harry’s reckoning, the most selective (highest admissions standard) states in the nation are Florida, Virginia, Delaware, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, South Carolina, Iowa, Michigan, and Georgia. The least selective (lowest admissions standard) states are Alaska, Maine, West Virginia, Idaho, New Mexico, Utah, Rhode Island, North Dakota, Arkansas, and South Dakota.

Do differential admissions standards make a big difference in college academic performance? The answer, unequivocally, is “yes.” The 10 highest admission standards states listed above had an unweighted average sophomore-retention rate of 82.9 percent, meaning about 17 percent of entering freshmen did not go on to the sophomore year. Amongst the lowest admission standards state, the retention rate was only 71.5 percent, meaning 28.5 percent of entering freshmen never made it into the sophomore year—two-thirds greater a proportion.

The data hold if one looks at four-year graduation rates. For the high-admissions states, the mean is 37.3 percent, nearly double the 19.2 percent for the low-admissions states. Do the low-admissions states narrow the gap by students going five or six years to school? No. The six-year graduation rate for the high-admissions states averages 62.3 percent, compared with 43.1 percent for the low-admissions states. In short, most kids in the high-admissions states do graduate, while a majority in the low-admissions state do not, at least within six years.

In short, one can predict with some certainty what the impact of lowering standards in the name of greater educational access will be in terms of student prospects for tests. High-school rank and SAT test results are good predictors of success. States that say “we want to give everyone a chance for a bachelor’s degrees so we are going to admit nearly everyone who applies” might feel good about themselves—but they have far greater numbers of poor college students who then drop out of school without a diploma, but in many cases with college-loan debts and no degree allowing them access to good-paying jobs.

Harry estimates the costs to the taxpayers of dropouts and it is considerable—about $12-billion annually nationally by his calculation. Thus admitting students with little realistic prospect for success is pretty costly to taxpayers, as AT THE MARGIN the proportion of the less-good students admitted who graduate is doubtlessly quite small.

The moral of the story is that there are no free lunches. Lofty aspirations, like “everyone should have a chance at college,” come at a cost, not only to taxpayers and to society, but also to individuals who sometimes directly suffer significantly from the unintended consequences of some well-intended policy discussions.

Charles Murray is dubious about “everyone going to college” on intellectual capacity grounds. Jackson Toby is dubious about open admissions in terms of its impact on academic quality and declining high-school standards. I have been dubious on the grounds of labor market imbalances and high costs. Harry Stille’s data provide further support for those whose raise a caution light if not a stop sign with regards to the “College for Everyone” movement.


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