New Study About College Selectivity and Graduation Rates Overlooks Important Factors


According to a study published earlier this month in the American Educational Research Journal, how selective a college is has little to do with the likelihood of its students graduating. This finding is encouraging in many ways; however, it does not tell the whole story.

To begin with, it reaffirms the fact that high-achieving, low-income students should feel empowered to apply to competitive colleges. Some of these students are reluctant to do so simply because they are concerned they won’t be able to keep up at the most selective schools compared with how well they could do at a less selective school. At least in terms of their probability of graduating, that doesn’t prove to be true.

In fact previous studies suggest the opposite:  Around 90 percent of high-achieving students at the nation’s 146 most selective colleges and universities graduate within six years of starting college, compared to only 70 percent of equally high-achieving students at less selective schools and 56 percent at non-selective schools.

Unfortunately, the study’s focus is on analyzing the institutions rather than the students, so it misses that point. It fails to disaggregate student populations by socioeconomic status—in fact it controls for such factors. So while the study claims the schools deliver similar outcomes, it can’t speak to how well they serve certain populations.

Moreover, the study draws our attention back to the profound and widening achievement gap that exists in our educational system. While selectivity does not matter, the makeup of a school’s student body still does: colleges that enroll more low-income students will tend to have lower graduation rates. But that begs the question, how well prepared are those students and how well served are they by the schools they attend? Nonetheless, as long as the perception persists, it will limit opportunities available to high-achieving, low-income students and act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So regardless of where high-achieving, low-income students go to college, we clearly need to do more to prepare them. That’s why the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation also awards grants to organizations that help students develop academic skills beyond the typical offerings of their high school.

Finally, we’re also concerned with the implications of the value colleges might put on graduation rates at the expense of admitting lower-income students. In a written statement, Paul Attewell, a professor of sociology and urban education and an author of the study, cautioned that “Policy makers should be careful not to give colleges incentives for not serving the most disadvantaged students, by overemphasizing graduation rates as a performance measure.”

Past studies contradict these findings, so this discussion will certainly continue. Whatever the outcome, that won’t change the fact that our Foundation and other leaders in education must continue to advocate for high-achieving, low-income students.