College Selectivity and Degree Completion


Published online first in:
American Educational Research Journal
August 7, 2014

Scott Heil, CUNY Office of Institutional Research
Liza Reisel, Institute for Social Research
Paul Attewell, CUNY Graduate Center


How much of a difference does it make whether a student of a given academic ability enters a more or a less selective four-year college? Some studies claim that attending a more academically selective college markedly improves one’s graduation prospects. Others report the reverse: an advantage from attending an institution where one’s own skills exceed most other students. Using multi-level models and propensity score matching methods to reduce selection bias, we find that selectivity, measured by a college’s average SAT score, does not have an independent effect on graduation. Instead of a selectivity effect we find relatively small positive effects on graduation rates from attending a college with higher tuition costs. We also find no evidence that students who do not attend highly selective colleges suffer reduced chances of graduation as a result, all else being equal.