News: College Access & Success

Report Roundup: Increasing College Completion Rates, SAT-Only Admissions, Enrollment Shifts

Monday, July 22, 2019  
Posted by: Bill Debaun
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It can be hard to keep up with all of the latest reports. Acknowledging that, here are summaries of three recent interesting pieces of research. 

“Why Have College Completion Rates Increased?” This interesting new working paper from a team at Brigham Young finds that despite college completion rates decreasing between the 1970s and 1990s, since 1990 and until the present, those rates have actually increased. That increase has come in the aggregate as well as at selective and non-selective public and private nonprofit institutions. 

The researchers examine a number of factors and conclude that these predict that completion rates should have continued to decline after 1990. For example, factors like a stagnant wage bonus to earning a degree, increases to price, hours employed while enrolled, and number of students enrolled (which decreases the preparedness of the average enrollee), and declines to state support for higher education, time spent studying, and selectivity of institution attended all point in the direction of declining college completion rates. 

One key factor the researchers identify, however, is rising GPA. The authors identify an increase in GPA between two longitudinal surveys representing the high school classes of 1992 and 2004. They find, “11 percent of all students move from being below a 2.0 GPA to above a 2.0.” Adding that change to their model accounts for most of the change in college completion rates identified. The authors conclude: “Our findings combined with trends in studying and labor force participation in college suggest standards for degree receipt have changed.” 

In short, the authors suggest that both changes in policy that have emphasized college completion and put pressure on institutions as well as workforce demands for employees with degrees have led to grade inflation. “The lowest cost way to increase graduation rates is through changing standards of degree receipt,” the authors note. The report’s findings have implications for the wage premium earned by degree-earners, the significance of the signal of earning a degree, and the skills and capacities of the workforce. Ultimately, this may be a driver of increased application and matriculation to graduate school. 

“How Would SAT-Only Admissions Change College Campuses?” Continuing with the theme of interesting questions as section titles, this one was asked by a recent report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. The report takes student-level data from an NCES longitudinal survey, sorts students descending by SAT/ACT score, and then compares the students who actually enrolled at these institutions to the same number of students who could be expected to attend if SAT/ACT scores were the only consideration. 

The report finds that there would be a significant shift who is enrolled under SAT-only admissions. Under this thought experiment, CEW estimates that 53% of students would be displaced in favor of students with higher SAT scores. Among those who would be displaced, 53% are from the top socioeconomic quartile and 35% are White. Shifting to SAT-only admissions would raise the share of White students at the most selective four-year institutions from 66% to 75%; Black and Latino students’ combined share would decrease from 19% to 11%. Notably, the report finds, “Among students with scores below 1250, fewer Black and Latino students—groups typically assumed to benefit from affirmative action—are admitted than affluent White students.” 

Certainly more goes into admissions than standardized testing, and rightly so, but this hypothetical from CEW tries to estimate the shifts that could occur in a world where filling in bubbles was the only thing that mattered. 

Proportion of Low-Income Students Rising: A recent report from the Pew Research Center shows that over the past 20 years, the proportions of low-income and nonwhite students on college campuses have risen dramatically. Between 1996 and 2016, the percentage of low-income dependent undergraduates rose from 12% to 20%, and the percentage of nonwhite dependent undergraduates rose from 29% to 47%. Looking at it by institution type and selectivity, the largest increases in these student groups’ share of enrollment came at minimally selective four-year institutions and community colleges. This trend occurred at the same time that the overall percentage of students enrolled at community colleges decreased from 1996 to 2016. 

There are a few implications here. First, these are clear-cut numbers about the changing faces and experiences of college students nationwide. Second, the numbers speak to the large, and growing, need for college access and success services to help students overcome obstacles to achieving postsecondary success. Third, the report provides evidence of the importance of considering postsecondary fit and match in college selection; minimally selective four-year institutions and community colleges, on average, have lower completion rates than more selective four-year institutions. In short, it is positive to see more low-income students and students of color accessing postsecondary education; it is critical that these students be seen through to completion.