Colleges prize selectivity. They also want to graduate their students. But the former has very little to do with the latter, according to a study published on Thursday in the American Educational Research Journal.
In fact, the study found, there is only one institutional variable that has a significant effect on a student’s graduation prospects, and that is tuition. The likelihood that a student will graduate increases by a fraction of a percent for every $1,000 in tuition charged at his or her college, according to the study.
Previous research on the topic has concluded that selectivity has a positive effect on the likelihood a student will graduate, and that “undermatching” of low-income, high-achieving students should therefore be a cause for concern. Other research has found that selectivity hurts the likelihood a student will graduate.
The researchers behind the new study dispute both claims, saying there is no discernible correlation. Instead, graduation rates are determined primarily by the profile of a college’s student body. Colleges that enroll low-income students who are less prepared for college, for example, will have lower graduation rates.
“Policy makers should be careful not to give colleges incentives for not serving the most disadvantaged students, by overemphasizing graduation rates as a performance measure,” said Paul Attewell, a professor of sociology and urban education in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and an author of the study, in a written statement.
Critics have assailed President Obama’s proposed college-ratings system, which is expected in draft form this fall, for that very reason. The critics say that tying federal financial aid to measures like graduation rates will discourage colleges from enrolling low-income students.
The study’s other authors are Scott Heil, director of analysis and reporting in the university’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, and Liza Reisel, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Social Research, in Oslo.