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Going to a more selective college doesn't make you more likely to graduate

Students gathering to celebrate a high school graduation.
Students gathering to celebrate a high school graduation.
Boston Globe
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The higher graduation rates at selective colleges are a big part of why President Obama, among others, has focused on getting high-achieving, low-income students to apply to and attend them. But new research published today casts doubt on the notion that the college itself makes a difference in whether students are likely to graduate.

After controlling for factors such as race, high school GPA, and family income, all of which affect students' likelihood of graduating, the researchers found that it didn't really matter whether students went to a relatively unselective college, a moderately selective college or a highly selective college. The study was published Thursday in the American Educational Research Journal.

Moving up a level in selectivity slightly increased the odds of graduating with a bachelor's degree, but only slightly. And students whose grades and test scores suggested the could have attended a more selective college than they actually did were no less likely to graduate than they would have been at a more prestigious institution.

Of course, attending a selective college has other benefits, from higher lifetime earnings for some students to a more vast alumni network. And much of the research on whether low-income students are cheating themselves by attending less selective colleges suggests that students are not attending minimally selective colleges, but colleges with no selection criteria at all, or colleges that do not offer four-year degrees.

Still, the researchers — Scott Heil and Paul Atwell of the City University of New York and Lisa Reisel, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo — say the findings should caution policymakers against tying high-stakes consequences to college's graduation rates. They suggest graduation rates are inextricably tied to the characteristics of the students colleges admit, and that colleges themselves can do little to alter students' odds of graduation.

One other finding: Going to a more expensive college actually did seem to make students more likely to graduate. The authors suggest two reasons: either more expensive colleges have more money to invest in student support systems, or students are aware of the investment they and their families are making and are more likely to persist through to graduation.

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