Bad Grades Lead to College Dropout Even When They Don’t Have To

An important new working paper (NBER, pdf) from Todd and Ralph Stinebrickner helps pinpoint an overlooked cause of college dropout. They were interested in the non-financial reasons for dropout, particularly the role played by grades. The longitudinal survey data they collected was uniquely suited to this question because it came from Barea College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky where all students receive a full-scholarship that covers tuition, room, and board. The result is that “credit constraints…do not play a substantial role in determining the overall dropout rate.” Despite the financial assistance provided by Barea, the school’s large population of low-income students tends to have dropout rates on par with similar colleges.

The Stinebrickners looked at three ways grades can impact dropout: 1) Students want to stay in school but are forced out by their poor performance, 2) poor grades lower expectations about future academic performance and future earnings, and 3) bad grades make school less enjoyable. In the end, they found support for the latter two scenarios. Bad grades didn’t force students to drop out because of academic rules or regulations, bad grades caused students to drop out because they altered how students viewed their future college experience.

We find that forty-five percent of the dropout that occurs in the first two years of college can be attributed to student learning about academic performance…Our simulations show that students who perform poorly tend to learn that staying in school is not worthwhile, not that they fail out or learn that they are more likely (than they previously believed) to fail out in the future. As to why learning about academic performance makes staying in college less worthwhile, we find that poor performance both substantially decreases the enjoyability of school and substantially influences beliefs about post-college earnings.

Three important points:

1. Mindsets! The line of thinking laid out in the study goes something like this: My grades are bad now, therefore my grades will be bad in the future, therefore my education will probably earn me less money, therefore I might as well drop out now. But that first “therefore” isn’t necessarily true! Even if you initially struggle it’s possible to work hard, improve your ability, and get better grades. That’s not to say students who are wholly unprepared to handle college should delude themselves into thinking that sticking it out is the right decision. But around the margins there are probably a lot of students who would choose not to drop out if they understood the strong correlation between current and future grades is not set in stone.

2. The recent emphasis on college readiness is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s always bad when students show up on campus and immediately struggle, but the paper demonstrates that bad grades can lead to dropout even when those grades don’t necessitate dropout. Thus the paper adds to the negative impact of initial academic failure.

3. The specific way we talk about college being “worthwhile” is very important. On one hand, emphasizing the massive income gains from having a degree could rightly convince some struggling students that it’s best to earn a degree even if they think their bad grades make it the wrong decision. On the other hand, the idea that college is still a good value detracts from the urgency of finding ways to make college more affordable, and one of the things the study makes salient is that the cost of college matters more than we might think because students constantly re-evaluate a degree’s expected benefits. If college is deemed “unaffordable” at any of the 4 or 8 or 15 re-evaluation points, for example, because a poor academic semester lowers expectations of future earnings, a student might choose to dropout. That means even small improvements in college affordability — improvements that rhetoric about college being a good deal could mitigate — have greater potential to be the difference between whether a student decides to drop out or stay in school.
Stinebrickner, T., & Stinebrickner, P. (2013). Academic Performance and College Dropout: Using Longitudinal Expectations Data to Estimate a Learning Model NBER Working Papers DOI: 10.3386/w18945

4 Responses to Bad Grades Lead to College Dropout Even When They Don’t Have To

  1. A failed man says:

    I can tell you what bad grades lead you. I am a living example. I graduated from elementary school with relatively poor grades in 2001. My score was 1.4 out of 2.0. A 1.0 rating means that you passed all courses. If you have a 1.5, it means that you pass with distinction and 2.0 means that your rating is perfect. My grades were above the national average (1.2) but not enough for a prestigious High School. I was lucky and got into a prestigious high school. The first year I failed the basic course in Latin. I did not like my classmates even though my grades were reasonably good. I switch to another High School. My ratings dropped and I failed in basic Spanish and mathematics at intermediate level. I managed to get good grades in other courses so I was able to graduate. I left High School with a 1.3 of 2.0 which was marginally above the national average.

    Such ratings are not enough for a decent university education. I had also read advanced English instead of advanced mathematics so I could not apply for an education in economics. I began to study at one of the country’s better universities. The only thing I got into was an A-level course in philosophy. I also had the new grading system with only two scales. Pass and pass with distinction. During my first semester I failed all modules. I had one option and that was the university entrance exam, a second chance in my country. I did the university entrance exam after a wet night out and got 0.2 to 2.0. I submitted it almost empty. I was not motivated.

    This poor performance helped me into an A-level course in political science at the trendy newly established college if not a prestigious one. Today I had never been admitted. During my first semester at this college I passed only two of four modules. To go further, I needed to take three out of four modules. I took one semester off and finished a module from my philosophy course and one of the two modules I failed at the A-level political science course.

    I went on to the B-level course in Political Science. This time I completed three of four modules and passed the thesis for an associate degree. The next semester I was admitted for a one year course in European Studies. I passed all modules. I still needed to complete two modules to read my last C-level and final course in political science needed for a complete major. Next semester I was admitted to an A-level course in sociology at my old university.

    There was an interlude of having something to do. I passed all courses except one (I did not submit a supplementary task that would take two hours to do). During the semester I also completed my A-level course in political science. The following semester, I was admitted to my C-level and final course in political science, though still lacking one module from my B-level. I guess I was lucky. My girlfriend of several years dumped me. I had to move in with my parents and got fired from my sales job for not showing up to sign a new contract. I passed the course without a problem. Many failed but I received the highest mark on my bachelor thesis in political science and the examiner was very impressed. In order to get my Bachelor degree, I did however need to finish that last module from the B-level. Most people would look for a job now but the financial crisis was here and many stayed in school including many friends.

    I sought out a teacher training program at one of the finest universities in my country (and in the world) and was accepted. I also wanted to move to another city. The semester was easy though I only passed my modules. I wanted to go to graduate school in political science and follow my mother’s footstep. Next semester I read my B-level course in sociology at the same university and applied for the country’s finest Masters in Political Science at the same university. To get in they first look at you BA thesis and then your grades. I got in because of my thesis but they told me that I needed to pass my last module. I passed.

    Now I was inside. This program is very good because all top government agency’s recruit from this program. A couple of weeks into my program a social worker called and told me that I would in a very close time become the father of a child. My child’s mother was a woman I shortly dated and we broke up. It should be noted that I have never been promiscuous. Rather the opposite. It just happened. Although, I love my child, my life fell to pieces because of the conflicts it created.

    The program was constructed in two long stand alone courses per semester instead of four short ones with written exams as usual. It was mostly about writing long papers rather than written tests. The first semester I completed none of them. The second semester I studied my C-level or BA course in sociology to read something easier. To enter I needed to submit the “two-hour” supplement from my sociology A-level, which I did. The professor thought I was an idiot because it was just about a missed seminary I skipped. I did not submit my bachelor thesis in sociology and I actually failed a course, in quantitative method because I was too depressed to open the book. The following semester, (stupid as I’m) I read a course in my Masters program that I did not finish but I did complete the failed course in quantitative method in Sociology and my two Master courses from my first semester. I even completed my advanced method course with distinction. It is made very difficult so only the absolute brightest people pass with distinction. I was one of them.

    I took a semester “off” again to finish my bachelor thesis in sociology and to be with my child. I realized I would never be able to pick out a Masters in this rate. I could not cope. However, there was a solution and it was to get a one-year Master. The following semester I began writing on my on my Master thesis. I could not finish it in time because the conflicts with my sons mother and I was once again forced to take a semester off. This is time I only looked for jobs. I applied for numerous jobs but was not granted any interview except for a temporary position as a lower bureaucrat at notorious government agency. A job I did not get.

    Because I had finished my first semester I was able to seek a six month internship. I applied for three off most prestigious ones in the field of government investigation. I was admitted to the most prestigious one because of my MA-program, additional working and a lots of method courses. Under these six months I worked the hard and so I was told what I wanted to hear but so were it all shattered when they withdrew the offer due to downsizing during my last week. At least they gave me good references. Now I have been unemployed for over four months and will go up with my one-year Master’s thesis after the summer.

    Since then, I have applied for numerous jobs but just been called to two interviews, one of which is a good analyst job. I only got that interview because of my internship. A job I interviewed for last week. Purely academic, I am qualified (because the requirement is only a bachelor’s degree so they will attract young people). Since I begun studying before 2007, I have the right to obtain a double bachelor’s degree because I have two majors. This was a loop that was closed for the later students but I still have the right to such a degree even though I only have credits for a 1.5 BA. My resume therefore says it as I’m incredibly well-educated even though I’m not. Sure, I have more completed credits than many. I told the recruiter how many completed credits I had and she was impressed. In my country a BA is mostly enough for most positions. Masters programs longer then one year is not popular. Most of those I studied with just took the one year Master and left.

    I probably will not get to the last interview because of my grades. I also wrote the wrong year in my resume when I started my degree in sociology. I also said that when I had my child things did take longer time because I was needed to take care of my kid. In the two-point grading scale, I just passed with distinction in two courses. One of them is my advanced method course and the other one is my bachelor thesis in political science. I also told them I had bad grades. The only time I have had the new rating scale (my first university adopted it when I read sociology),I had C in a scale from A to F, where F is a fail. I had probably had C (lower pass with distinction) and D (higher pass) in most of my classes if I had that system. In some cases I would have B. I would also have some E:s.

    I am living proof of what happens when you get bad grades. I lost my desire to study my first year in high school or maybe it was in ninth grade. I also did not know what I wanted to do in life. University studies are free in my country and free grants and loans for studies are generous. It was a fitting way to live with the extra work for years – now I’m back with my parents, I have no money, no job ,I cannot see my kid and friends thinks I’m an idiot that cannot get a job. So, if you are young and lack the intelligence or motivaton – do not go to college. It is a waste of time. I lack both.

    • Brendan keating says:

      I read this and felt really touched and had to write back. I’m 18 and go to college at northern essex cc. I felt really good about myself going there firstoff. Now I’m getting bad grades so my motivation shit the bed. Its terrible. Intelligent people older than me have told me I’m very smart and mature for my age. I wanted to take psych and philos but I’m already struggling in those. I have to keep going because the conditions of my financial aid. I feel like our education system isn’t fully developed and doesn’t appeal to all types of learners. Theres something missing. I’m the type that needs to see the data be applied I can’t just sit there and learn about something that my stubborn brain thinks is irrelevant to my search of knowledge(to make things worse-have ADHD) .I do admit there’s no one else I can blame but Idk.. anyways I hope you find your niche in life man. Connect with your kid and find a job out there that’s well paying and suites you. Take care

  2. S says:

    I used to get bad grades in college but I slapped myself into gear to raise my GPA and it’s working. Hard work can get you far. In the end if you get a C or lower, just remember it’s only a grade. If someone seriously can’t do well in college, then they should have never gone in the first place. It really takes so much dedication. The trick is to not let it get you down when you fail a test. I have failed many tests and passed those courses with a C. There are many ways to pull through at the end. As for deciding a major, do not ever do it based off of shallow reasons like “This will make me TONS of money!” You have to do something you actually like and CAN do! I can’t be an engineer so instead I’m doing what I enjoy the most and am so intrigued by where I actually want to learn and achieve and that is with Sociology. I hate when I hear people who sit there and brag about their perfect GPA as if it is the most important thing in the world. It’s not. Then they whine about anything lower than an A. Seriously? There is so much more to life than your stupid grade. Just pass the requirements and get the degree, don’t look too much into those courses you have done poorly in. Just keep pulling through. Sometimes enough is enough and you have to slow down in that moment and say “This is my best work. I have tried so hard to accomplish this, and this is the grade I will be happy with no matter what because I know I’m not a failure.” Needless to say, I have been happy when I had a grade that others considered “poor.” Future employers don’t care about your grades and GPA. Sure, if they’re great you can brag about it and show off your GPA on your resume, just remember the GPA isn’t all that matters. There is more to life than your grades and being perfect, your priorities need to be those who are close to you.

  3. Pingback: Top Challenges You May Face While Studying Abroad

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