Selectivity and Graduation Rates

Study questions idea that going to the most competitive college one can get into increases odds of completion.

August 7, 2014

Educators continue to debate "undermatching" -- the idea that many talented low-income students do not even apply to, let alone enroll at, the most competitive institutions to which they could gain admission.

In the last two years, many prominent researchers have endorsed the undermatching thesis, which has attracted attention at the White House. But other researchers have published studies that have cast doubt on it. A paper being published today in American Educational Research Journal belongs in that latter group. The paper argues that, when similar groups of students are compared, whether one attends a more or less competitive college has next to no impact on graduation rates.

The research is based on two federal databases: the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Information was collected about first-time undergraduate students at 420 four-year public and private institutions. But rather than just comparing the graduation rates at different types of institutions (which many studies have found to be higher at more competitive colleges), this study controlled for the ability of more selective colleges to recruit and enroll better-prepared students. So the study compared similar students who went to more or less competitive colleges.

When doing so, it found that the impact of moving from a "lower" to "middle tier" college, or from a "middle" to an "upper tier" college, was positive, but "was so small as to be barely measurable."

The conclusion of the paper notes that this finding challenges the advice given to many prospective college students and reinforced by the recent discussion of undermatching.

"[F]rom the standpoint of the individual student, choosing to enroll at a college whose average admissions test scores are substantially higher or lower does not appear to help or harm her chances of graduating," the paper says. "Thus, other considerations in college selection, such as proximity to family and social supports, favorable financing, the availability of programs and faculty of interest, and personal preferences, might be more salient criteria to inform that decision."

The study did find one institutional factor that does appear to contribute to higher graduation rates. Comparing institutions, for every extra $1,000 charged in tuition by a college, the odds of graduation increase by a fraction of a percent. The impact is small but real. The paper says that this could reflect the greater resources likely available at these institutions, or could reflect a push by students and families to encourage graduation at institutions on which they have spent more.

The three authors of the paper are: Scott Heil, director of analysis and reporting at the City University of New York Office of Institutional Research and Assessment; Liza Reisel, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo; and Paul Attewell, a professor of sociology and urban education at CUNY Graduate Center.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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