“Your Grandmother” on College Completion

In the last twenty years or so the college completion rate in the U.S. has gone down. Some 50.5 percent of 1972 high school graduates finished college; less than 46 percent of the class of 1992 graduated from college. According to Inside Higher Ed, colleges often blame this apparent completion decline on high schools, arguing that students are just “not prepared to go to college at all. And they’re not as equipped as they used to be.

Well, maybe not. In a new study, “Why Have College Completion Rates Declined? An Analysis of Changing Student Preparation and Collegiate Resources” (pdf) published yesterday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the authors, economists, argue that:

Increased college enrollment also generated shifts in the kind of colleges students attend and in the resources available within those institutions. We document a marked reduction in institutional resources in the sectors that experienced declining completion rates. Reductions in resources per student at the institutional level may limit course offerings and student support and can lower the rate at which students are able to complete the requirements for a baccalaureate degree.

It’s not that students going to college are unprepared for higher education by high school, as many argue. The study’s authors believe that declining college completion rates actually have a lot more to do with what they call “the supply side of higher education;” more students who begin higher education begin it in community colleges. People who start in community college are very unlikely to successfully complete school.

Clifford Adelman at the Institution for Higher Education Policy and former Department of Education researcher, says the conclusion is sort of obvious: Everyone knows students who start in community college do not graduate at nearly the same rate as people who start at selective universities; “Your grandma could have told you that.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer