Bad Grades Lead to College Dropout Even When They Don’t Have To
April 11, 2013 4 Comments
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