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Study Rejects Notion That Selective College Boosts Graduation Chances

Here's some good news for high school students who realize they don't likely have the money or credentials to get into one of the country's most selective colleges: Turns out the notion that going to a more prestigious school will dramatically improve your chances of graduating is really not accurate.

A paper in the American Educational Research Journal released August 7 finds that graduation rates are higher at selective schools because students who typically go to them are academically strong and relatively affluent.

"The reason the Ivies have graduation rates of 95 percent is not because of some magic," said Paul Attewell, distinguished professor of sociology and urban education at the City University of New York. "Rather they are carefully selecting the students who have the resources, academic and financial, to get through."

The research, which Attewell did in collaboration with Scott Heil of CUNY and Lisa Reisel from the Institute for Social Research in Oslo, Norway, examined nationally representative longitudinal data and controlled for various factors to find selectivity (as measured by a college's average SAT score), does not have an independent effect on graduation.

What do these findings mean for college-bound students and educators who advise them?

"Choosing to enroll in a college whose average admissions test scores are substantially higher or lower does not appear to help or harm her chances of graduating," the paper says. "Other considerations, such as proximity to family and social supports, favorable financing, the availability of programs and faulty of interest, and personal preferences, might be more salient criteria to inform that decision."

If students have the choice, it's better to start at a four-year institution, rather than community college, said Attewell. But once students have narrowed their options to four-year schools, the study found no evidence that students who do not attend highly selective colleges suffer reduced chances of graduation as a result, all else being equal.

"It does not hurt to try for a more selective place," said Attewell. "If you get in, that's great., but you are not going to gain some fantastic graduation rate.....The majority of what explains who graduates and who does not  is a mixture of high school preparation and financial ability."

The paper also found there was no basis to the concern that students could be "overmatched" by going to a school that was a stretch and then "crash and burn," said Attewell, in a phone interview.

Attewell notes that for the lowest-income students, elite colleges can sometimes provide financial aid that makes enrolling more affordable than at a public university.  Also, he acknowledges there are networking advantages to choosing a prestigious university.

"Our results do not preclude that academic selectivity may influence other student outcomes such as future earnings, subjective well-being, and professional networks," the paper said.

However, an expensive university that is not highly ranked, such as a for-profit college, may not be worth the investment, he added.

"The bottom line is to graduate. That's the most important thing," Attewell said. "And we find selectivity is not as powerful of an effect as people  have said."

There should not be too much emphasis placed on the idea that academically selective institutions, as measured by admissions test scores, somehow have a "secret sauce" that gets students to graduate disproportionately relative to their backgrounds, the paper concludes.

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