Thursday, February 09, 2006

Institutional Graduation Rates by Academic Selectivity

Institutional graduation rates are largely determined by the academic qualifications of the students they admit. More selective admissions institutions tend to have higher graduation rates than do less selective institutions as Astin pointed out more than a decade ago. The institutions that have higher or lower graduation rates than the rates predicted by the academic qualifications of their admitted freshmen differ from their peers in ways that offer useful insight into more and less successful institutional retention strategies such as academic and social integration, first-year experience and learning communities.

But there is another more troubling aspect to selective college admissions: the criteria used in selection (SAT, ACT, high school grades and class rank) are so highly correlated with family income that colleges could substitute the students' parents' federal income tax return for test scores, letters of recommendation, essays and campus visits to build similar entering freshman classes. These class-based admissions criteria tend to exclude students born into low income families. And this exclusion diminishes low income students' chances of ever graduating from college.

We have recently re-analyzed a data file on institutional graduation rates prepared by the Higher education Research Institute at UCLA. Astin and his colleagues gathered graduation status at 4 and 6 years on a sample of 56,818 freshmen who started college in 1994 at 262 baccalaureate-granting institutions. From this file Astin published Degree Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities (January 2005). We used this file to calculate graduation rates for freshmen from different family income levels at institutions with different levels of admissions selectivity. Controlling for SAT score our analysis finds that at all levels of family income and all levels of SAT scores graduation rates increase with admissions selectivity.

For example for 1994 freshmen from families with incomes of $0 to $25,000 and SAT scores between 1001 and 1099, six year graduation rates by institutional selectivity were:
Low selectivity 53.6%
Medium selectivity 61.3%
High selectivity 69.3%
This pattern holds across family income levels, SAT score ranges, and institutional types and controls.

My conclusion from these findings is that the exclusion of students from low income family backgrounds by class-based admissions criteria at selective admission colleges and universities diminishes the overall graduation prospects for students born into low income families. It also inflates the graduation prospects of students born into affluent families. In other words the current college admissions system is enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor.

Higher education has utterly failed to grasp the key role it now plays as the gatekeeper to the American middle class. The alternative paths to the middle class through family farming and manufacturing employment in earlier stages of economic development no longer exist. Who gets into higher education and who gets into selective admission colleges now determines who gets to most fully experience the American lifestyle. The class-based admissions criteria currently employed by selective admission colleges and universities are dividing educational opportunity along the line of inherited--not earned--privilege. I cannot imagine anything more destructive of what makes the United States uniquely a land of opportunity for the talented and ambitious--unique in the world and unique in history.


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