Photographer: Alex Jagendorf/Flickr

It's Better to Struggle at a Good School Than to Ace Community College

New research shows that graduation outcomes are better for borderline students who aim above their abilities than ones who pick easier options

Borderline students with marginal SAT scores often have two choices: They could scrape their way into a four-year public university, or they could enroll in community college.

New research suggests the former is the better option. Even if their academic credentials put them squarely at the bottom of the class, students have a good shot of earning their bachelor's if they take the leap and choose to go to a four-year college, according to a working paper published on Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Harvard and College Board researchers tracked enrollment and college completion rates for students whose SAT scores put them just above or below the cutoff for entry into Georgia's four-year public universities. The researchers picked Georgia because it has a unique setup: State schools require students to meet a minimum SAT score for admission, meaning the researchers could look at students whose scores were borderline to see what happened to students who barely got into a four-year college compared to ones with roughly the same scores who were bumped into community college or chose some other option. 

While theoretically, students with similar academic credentials should have had comparable chances of getting a bachelor's degree, that turned out not to be the case. Students who chose to go to a four-year college had a 49.6 percent chance of getting a bachelor's, 32 percentage points higher than students who just missed the cutoff for a four-year school, the researchers found. The advantages of a four-year school were even more pronounced for low-income students, whose chance of earning their bachelor's was 50 percentage points higher than those who didn't go to a four-year college. 

The paper casts doubt on concerns that putting students who barely make admissions cutoff into competitive schools might hurt their chances of earning a degree.

"There's a lot of conversation in [higher education] policy around the idea that you want students to pick institutions where their peers will be similar to them in academic skill,” says Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and one of the paper's authors. The opposite is true, Goodman says. "Students should go to the highest-quality institution that is available to them," he says.

Researchers and higher education experts aren't exactly sure why going to one school and not another boosts the likelihood of students graduating. They have a few ideas, though. Four-year institutions may have more tutors and specialized programs available to help students who are struggling academically. "Going to an institution where you're near the bottom of your class may nevertheless not be problematic, as long as the institution can pay attention to you," Goodman says.

The data suggest that being challenged is worth it. Being the worst student at a competitive college might be better than being the best student at a shoddy one. 

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