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Knowing Graduation Rates Affects College Decision

Knowing how well colleges do in graduating students makes a difference to parents in choosing a school, a study released today by the American Enterprise Institute shows.

Providing graduation-rate information positively affects a parent's choice when looking at two separate public, four-year colleges in their state—increasing the probability that parents would choose the institution with the higher graduation rate by 15 percentage points, according to the study, Filling In the Blanks: How Information Can Affect Choice in Higher Education.

The information had more influence on the decisions of parents with less education, lower incomes, and less knowledge of the college-application process. More advantaged and better-informed parents did not significantly change their preferences in response to graduation rates.

In the quest to improve college completion, many scholars believe that providing consumers with better information about college quality and costs should help students choose high-performing schools and put pressure on schools to improve graduation.

The survey's authors, Andrew P. Kelly, a research fellow at AEI, and Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics and visiting scholar at AEI, suggest federal rules should require colleges to share their six-year graduation rates with parents and students in all admissions and financial correspondence. They also propose policymakers should give out more information about college quality measures to help distinguish colleges from one another.

What about the role of K-12 in this process?

"It is critical that guidance counselors pass on basic information about college quality and costs to prospective students and parents so that they can make informed comparisons across schools," says Kelly. "Counselors should also take note of how popular colleges in their state compare to one another in terms of retention and graduation rates, and then help guide students to those colleges that have a track record of success."

High school teachers are also important gatekeepers because they write recommendations, help students with college essays, and mentor students more generally. Kelly says these teachers should have a basic sense of which colleges should be highlighted as high-quality choices and which should be avoided. Counselors can help prepare teachers for this role, and teachers could in turn alert counselors when students have particular colleges on their list of choices, he says.

"Guidance counselors are key players in the quest to equip parents and students to make better college investment decisions," says Kelly. "Counselors must recognize that not all colleges are created equal when it comes to getting students across the finish line, convey that information to parents and students, and help consumers avoid those colleges that are not making the grade."

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