Goodman, Joshua, Michael Hurwitz, and Jonathan Smith. "College Access, Initial College Choice and Degree Completion." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP14-030, February 2015 (Revised from June 2014).
The relatively low degree completion rate of U.S. college students has prompted debate over the extent to which the problem is attributable to the students or to their choice of colleges. Estimating the impact of initial college choice is confounded by the non-random nature of college selection. We solve this selection problem by studying the universe of SAT-takers in the state of Georgia, where minimum SAT scores required for admission to the four-year public college sector generate exogenous variation in initial college choice. Regression discontinuity estimates comparing the relatively low-skilled students just above and below this minimum threshold show that access to this sector increases enrollment in four-year colleges, largely by diverting students from two-year community colleges. Most importantly, access to four-year public colleges substantially increases bachelor’s degree completion rates, particularly for low-income students. Conditional on a student’s own academic skill, the institutional completion rate of his initial college explains a large fraction of his own probability of completion. Consistent with prior research on college quality and the two-year college penalty, these results may explain part of the labor market return to college quality.