New Study Highlights How College Quality Affects Graduation Rates

August 8, 2012
By Doug Gavel

It takes more than a "free ride" to bring students to the collegiate finish line. That is the finding in a new research study co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Joshua Goodman.

Goodman and co-author Sarah Cohodes examined outcomes for students enrolling in Massachusetts public colleges under the terms of the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program, which waives tuition at such colleges for high achievers. The scholarship was launched by then Governor Mitt Romney in 2004 with the intent of inspiring student achievement and keeping high-performing scholars in Massachusetts.

In the research study, titled "First Degree Earns: The Impact of College Quality on College Completion Rates," Goodman and Cohodes compared two groups of students -- one comprised of those who scored just high enough to quality, and the other comprised of those who barely missed qualifying for the scholarship. The authors report that the program is successful in the short-run at keeping top-scoring students in the Commonwealth for college.

In the long run, however, winning the scholarship actually lowers a student's chances of graduating from college on time. For students who switched into the Massachusetts public system due to the scholarship, "enrolling at an in-state public college lowered the probability of graduating on time by more than 40%." The authors argue that this surprising finding is due to many students giving up higher quality private and out-of-state alternatives in order to enter the Massachusetts public system, not realizing that such a choice will have substantial negative repercussions.

Goodman and Cohodes deduce three major conclusions from their research:

  • Students have a poor understanding of the importance of college quality;
  • There is a critical need to develop policy interventions that make information about colleges more readily available and more salient;
  • The harm done to students by exposure to low quality colleges highlights the critical importance of improving such institutions.

"The low completion rates of scholarship users imply that the program had little impact on the in-state production of college degrees," the authors conclude. "More broadly, these results suggest that the critically important task of improving college quality requires steps beyond merely changing the composition of the student body."

Joshua S. Goodman is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. He teaches empirical methods and the economics of education and his research interests include labor and public economics, with a particular focus on education policy.

Sarah Cohodes is a PhD student at the Kennedy School whose research focuses on the economics of education.

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Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Joshua Goodman.

Joshua Goodman, Harvard Kennedy School assistant professor

For students who switched into the Massachusetts public system due to the scholarship, "enrolling at an in-state public college lowered the probability of graduating on time by more than 40%," writes Goodman.