Study highlights how college quality affects grad rates

2 min read

It takes more than a “free ride” to bring students to the collegiate finish line. That is the finding in a new research study co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Joshua Goodman.

Goodman and co-author Sarah Cohodes examined outcomes for students enrolling in Massachusetts public colleges under the terms of the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program, which waives tuition at such colleges for high achievers. The scholarship was launched by then Governor Mitt Romney in 2004 with the intent of inspiring student achievement and keeping high-performing scholars in Massachusetts.

In the research study, titled “First Degree Earns: The Impact of College Quality on College Completion Rates,” Goodman and Cohodes compared two groups of students — one comprised of those who scored just high enough to quality, and the other comprised of those who barely missed qualifying for the scholarship. The authors report that the program is successful in the short-run at keeping top-scoring students in the Commonwealth for college.

In the long run, however, winning the scholarship actually lowers a student’s chances of graduating from college on time. For students who switched into the Massachusetts public system due to the scholarship, “enrolling at an in-state public college lowered the probability of graduating on time by more than 40%.” The authors argue that this surprising finding is due to many students giving up higher quality private and out-of-state alternatives in order to enter the Massachusetts public system, not realizing that such a choice will have substantial negative repercussions.