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Four-Year College Found to Give Completion Edge to Low-Income Students

New research illustrates the graduation advantage of attending a four-year university over a community college, particularly for low-income students.

The working paper, "College Access, Initial College Choice, and Degree Completion" by Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor at Harvard University, and Michael Hurwitiz and Jonathan Smith, both of the College Board, recently was posted on the National Bureau of Economic Research website.

The research analyzed a group of students who took the SAT in Georgia, comparing what happened with those whose scores were just above the minimum requirement to be admitted at a state public four-year institution and those whose performance fell just short.

The paper found attending a four-year college increased bachelor degree completion by about 30 percentage points over other alternatives, and the advantage for low-income students was 50 percent. Wealthier students only experienced a 13 percent gain in completion at a four-year school, compared to a two-year institution.

The findings add to the body of evidence about "undermatching"—where low-income students often do not attend the highest-quality college available to them. This issue has been highlighted by the series of summits last year on college access hosted by the Obama administration and improved school counseling is seen as one way to address the problem.

Based on the results from Georgia, the researchers concluded that concerns about pushing low-income students into high-quality schools only to fail are "ill-founded."  To expand opportunity, the paper recommends that test-taking and application choices not restrict students' available college options. The paper notes the fact that small differences in test scores can generate such a large difference in college choice is "remarkable." FInally, researchers say that while lowering the cost of attending community college may attract more students to higher education, if could lure some students away from four-year universities where their chances of success are greater.


 

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