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The easy headline to be drawn from new research (abstract here) examining the preparation and outcomes of students at two- and four-year colleges is that traditional-age students who enroll at community colleges are less likely to earn a bachelor's degree within six years than are comparably qualified students who go straight to four-year colleges. That is an undeniable finding of the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which was conducted by researchers at the College Board and the University of Michigan.

But it is far from the only, or even the most interesting, result of the study, given that quite a bit of previous research has found something similar, and it probably won't surprise a lot of people.

What's more interesting about the study is that it tries, the authors say for perhaps the first time, to compare the academic preparation that traditional-age students have when they enter two-year and four-year colleges, and to show that there is significant differentiation among community colleges in the preparation of students.

The researchers take advantage of a pairing of College Board data on PSAT scores for nearly three million students from 2004-6 with data from the National Student Clearinghouse about where those students enrolled and how they fared educationally. It plots the performance of any college where at least 50 students who took the PSAT in high school those years wound up enrolling, which at many community colleges, particularly, could represent a tiny fraction of the total student body.

Jonathan Smith, a policy research scientist at the College Board and a co-author of the paper, acknowledges that the PSAT is a "very simplistic measure" of academic preparation and that it is particularly limiting at community colleges, given how relatively few students at two-year institutions enroll straight from high school. But more are doing so, and even more are expected to do so as policy makers (and economic realities and tuition prices) encourage enrollment in lower-priced colleges. (Kevin Stange, the other co-author, is an assistant professor of public policy at Michigan.)

What the researchers' analysis revealed, among other things, is that there was enormous variation in the academic preparation (judged by the admittedly limited measure of average PSAT scores) not only between two-year and four-year colleges but among the two-year institutions. Because of the general assumption that community colleges, as open enrollment institutions, take all comers, "previous research has mostly treated all two-year colleges as a homogeneous outside option for bachelor's degree-aspiring students, ignoring any variation in peer quality within the two-year college sector," the authors write.

In fact, in numerous states there are two-year institutions that, at least for the pool of students straight out of high school, "attract students that are as high achieving as some of the less-selective four-year colleges in the state," the report states.

The study finds that the recent high school graduates who started at four-year institutions were almost 50 percentage points likelier than those who started at two-year colleges to have earned a bachelor's degree within six years. In both sectors, the institutions with stronger student bodies on the way in had better graduation rates. But after controlling for the students' own PSAT scores and for the average SAT scores of their peers at the institutions where they enrolled -- and some other things, such as per-student spending and size, and students' educational intentions -- about half of that gap remained; in other words, "four-year colleges have graduation rates about 25 percentage points higher than two-year colleges whose students have the same average PSAT."

What, then, might account for the rest of the difference in student outcomes, if student inputs and certain institutional traits don't? "The fact that sector is still so important even after accounting for peer ability, expenditure and several other college attributes suggests that structural factors such as credit transfer policies and the disruption of having to relocate to another college in order to earn a degree are important," the authors write.

The authors assert that understanding that there are differences in the academic preparation and outcomes among community colleges, just as with four-year institutions, could have implications for how policy makers understand student choice, as students may not want just to default to their local community college, but to "carefully weigh it" not only against the four-year options but "even other two-year options, which may be more distant."

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