2 Understanding the Decrease in College Completion Rates and the Increased Time to the Baccalaureate Degree * John Bound University of Michigan and NBER Michael F. Lovenheim SIEPR, Stanford University Sarah Turner University of Virginia and NBER Population Studies Center Research Report November 2007 * We would like to thank Paul Courant, Harry Holzer, Caroline Hoxby, Tom Kane, and Jeff Smith for comments on an earlier draft of this paper, and we are grateful to Charlie Brown, John DiNardo and Justin McCrary for helpful discussions. We also thank Jesse Gregory and Andrew Winerman for providing helpful research support. We have benefited from comments of seminar participants at NBER, the Society of Labor Economics, the Harris School of Public Policy, the Brookings Institution, Stanford University and the University of Michigan. We would like to acknowledge funding during various stages of this project from the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Searle Freedom Trust.
3 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 2 ABSTRACT Persistent increases in the wage premium for college graduates in recent decades have not been matched by gains in collegiate attainment. Indeed, the proportion of students entering college who receive degrees has slowed while time to completion of the baccalaureate degree has increased markedly among college graduates in the United States over the last three decades. Using data from the NLS72 and NELS:88 longitudinal surveys, we find that while enrollment rates have increased disproportionately among those students less well prepared for college, these students are unlikely to complete BA degrees resulting in an overall decline in the completion rate. In contrast, we find that changes in the composition of the college going population can account for essentially none of the observed increase in time to degree. The increase in time to degree is localized among those who begin postsecondary education at public colleges outside the most selective universities. We produce evidence that increased stratification in U.S. higher education and reductions in collegiate resources outside the top-tier of institutions are a primary component of the explanation for the observed increases in time to degree, with increases in time to degree relatively concentrated in states that have experienced rapid growth in the size of the college-age population and dilution in resources per student at many public colleges. Further, evidence of increased hours of employment among students is consistent with students working more to meet rising college costs thereby negatively affecting the length of time it takes them to complete college.
4 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 3 INTRODUCTION With the substantial increase in the college wage premium since 1980 and the sluggish increase in collegiate attainment among the U.S. labor force, understanding how the rate of collegiate attainment is affected by both demand-side and supply-side determinants in the higher education market has significant implications for economic growth. As the demand for a college education has expanded due to increasing returns to postsecondary investment over the last three decades, one would expect to see increased college enrollment, growth in college completion, and reductions in time to degree for those receiving degrees. In the past thirty years, however, substantial growth in college enrollment among high school graduates has not been matched with a comparable expansion in college degree attainment. Concurrently, for those who do obtain a degree, average time to completion of the baccalaureate (BA) degree has increased markedly in the United States over the this time period. 1 These recent trends are in contrast to the patterns that existed during the 1960s, when college enrollment and college degree receipt rose at a similar pace without a commensurate increase in the rate of progress from initial college participation to degree completion. It is the decline in the college completion rate and the increase in time to degree that distinguish the more recent trend from the earlier period. While it is possible that the recent increases in time to degree reflect greater human capital acquisition, the empirical evidence we produce suggests this positive interpretation is unlikely; increased time to degree has been associated with slower accumulation of degree 1 The factors impacting postsecondary persistence and graduation have received considerable attention in recent policy and press reports. One of the findings of the recently released Spellings Commission report was While educators and policymakers have commendably focused on getting more students into college, too little attention has been paid to helping them graduate. The result is that unacceptable numbers of students fail to complete their studies at all (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).
5 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 4 credits, not an increase in the level of credit attainment. That students are accruing credits more slowly implies deferral of the higher wages associated with college completion, lowering the rate of return to college, and reductions in the availability of college-educated workers in the labor market. Not only is the stagnation in the growth rate in the college-educated share of the labor force and the sustained expansion in the college-high school wage differential a substantial puzzle for labor economists (Card and Lemieux, 2001), but the persistence of this trend has important implications for long-run economic growth (DeLong, Goldin and Katz, 2003). Perhaps the most popular explanation for the drop in completion rates and increased time to degree involves changes in the composition of the student body. If students induced to enter college by higher economic rewards are less academically prepared than inframarginal students, the aggregate likelihood of completion will plausibly drop and time necessary for degree completion will increase. The magnitude of this compositional effect is an empirical question that has not been addressed in previous literature. In addition to changes in student composition, there are alternative explanations for the drop in completion rates and the increase in time to degree that focus on the supply-side of postsecondary education. In the presence of a market for higher education that relies on substantial public subsidies and where provision comes largely from public and non-profit institutions, supply-side constraints may limit the extent of adjustments to increased demand for collegiate attainment. For example, reductions over time in resources per student at the institutional level may limit the availability of course offerings and can slow the rate at which students are able to complete the requirements for a baccalaureate degree. Further, if increases in college costs relative to the availability of financial aid and family economic circumstances have induced more students to work while in college, one would expect the pace of degree completion to slow
6 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 5 and the college dropout rate to increase. This paper examines the empirical relevance of these factors in explaining declining completion rates and increasing time to degree. Comparing two cohorts from the high school classes of 1972 and 1992 using the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 and the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, respectively, we find significant differences over time in the composition of college attendees. There was a sizeable increase in the proportion of students from lower in the academic ability distribution attending college over this interval. However, these additional students were no more likely to obtain a BA. Indeed, we find that the changes in the precollegiate academic ability of incoming students can account for a significant share of the drop in college completion rates between these cohorts. Over the same period, the parental education of students enrolling in college also increased. With a strong link between parental education and college completion, this shift is in the wrong direction to explain reductions in the completion rate and, to some extent, increased parental education mitigates effects of the other compositional changes we observe. The significant shifts in the composition of entering college students have not translated into shifts in the composition of BA recipients because many of the students with weaker academic characteristics than those likely to enroll in the 1970s do not complete college. As a result, the composition of students obtaining a BA has not shifted enough to account for any of the observed increase in time to degree. Our analysis emphasizes the importance of increased stratification in U.S. higher education and reductions in collegiate resources outside the top-tier of institutions as a primary component of the explanation for the observed increase in time to degree and a partial explanation for the reductions in the college completion rate. We find that increases in time to
7 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 6 degree are relatively concentrated in states that have experienced rapid growth in the size of the college-age population, suggesting increased demand for postsecondary education generates crowding as resources per student in public higher education do not fully match increases in enrollment demand. With selective admissions and inelastic supply at top-tier public and private institutions, the result is an increased concentration of college students at community colleges and open-access four-year schools, where resources per student are likely to be diluted with expansion in enrollment. Given the nature of the available data and the complexity of the education production process, sharp identification of the effect of changing resources available to students on attainment is not possible; instead, we marshal available evidence from different sources to establish the strong plausibility of this line of reasoning. These results point to the importance of the supply-side factors in explaining trends in collegiate attainment and the supply of college educated workers that have been largely overlooked by previous analyses. Increases in college costs relative to family income may further limit the progression through degree programs if credit constraints lead students to increase employment at the cost of reductions in the rate of credit attainment. We observe substantial increases in employment while in college in association with extension of time to degree. Given the endogeneity of hours worked, it is difficult to quantify the effect this shift might have had on the pace of collegiate attainment. Still, the magnitude of the increase is large enough that it is likely this change has played a role as a proximate factor in increased time to degree. The rest of this paper is organized as follows: Section 1 describes the increase in time to degree and decline in completion rates found in the data. Section 2 outlines the potential explanations for these trends that inform our empirical analysis. Section 3 presents the results from our empirical analysis, and Section 4 concludes.
8 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 7 SECTION 1: INCREASED TIME TO DEGREE AND REDUCED COLLEGIATE ATTAINMENT Evidence of increased time to degree and reductions in college completion conditional on enrollment can be found in a range of data sources. The Current Population Survey (CPS) provides a broad overview of these trends in collegiate attainment by age (or birth cohort). While the share of the population with some collegiate participation increased substantially between the 1950 and the 1975 birth cohorts, Figure 1 shows that the share of the birth cohort obtaining the equivalent of a college degree by age 23 increased only slightly over this interval. Looking at college completion through age 28, however, shows the proportion of college graduates rising more significantly among recent birth cohorts. Taken together, the inference is that time to degree has increased. 2 To measure changes in time to degree in connection with micro data on individual and collegiate characteristics, this analysis utilizes the National Longitudinal Survey of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS72) and the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS:88). These surveys draw from nationally representative cohorts of high school and middle school students, respectively, and track the progress of students longitudinally through collegiate and employment experiences. To align these surveys, we focus on outcomes within eight years of cohort high school graduation for the sample of high school graduates who entered college within two years of their cohort s high school graduation. 3 2 Data from cross-sections of recent college graduates assembled by the Department of Education from the Recent College Graduates and Baccalaureate & Beyond surveys corroborate this finding. For example, from 1970 to 1993, the share of graduates taking more than six years rose from less than 25% to about 30%, while the share finishing in four years or less fell from about 45% of degree recipients in 1977 to only 31% in the 1990s (see McCormick and Horn, 1997 and Bradburn et al., 2003). 3 Cohort high school graduation is June 1972 for NLS72 respondents and June 1992 for NELS:88 respondents. We define time to degree as the elapsed time from high school cohort graduation. An alternative would have been to measure time to degree from the point of college entry. The results are not sensitive to this choice and, with the NELS:88 cohort only followed for eight years after high school graduation, our approach affords eight years of post-high school observation for both cohorts. While we measure time to degree from cohort
9 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 8 The college attendance rate among high school graduates from the NLS72 and NELS:88 microdata increased substantially over the two decades of analysis, as shown in Table 1. For the high school class graduating in 1972, 47.7% entered college within two years, with this rate rising to 71.8% for those graduating in While overall college participation rates have increased, the rate at which beginning college students complete the requirements for the BA degree has declined in recent decades. Within eight years, there is a more than 5 percentage point decline in the college completion rate, from 51.1% to 45.3%. As college attendance rates have increased over this interval, the distribution of students across institutions has shifted. While about 71% of students started at four-year institutions from the 1972 cohort, only about 61% of students in the later cohort started at a four-year public or private institution (Table 1, columns (ii) and (v)). Concurrently, the share starting at a two-year institution rose from 29% to 39%. 4 The share of students starting at private colleges and universities decreased only slightly, from 20.0% to 17.5%. 5 Panel B of Table 1 illustrates the dramatic differences in the likelihood of BA completion associated with type of first institution. At a descriptive level, students starting at community colleges are considerably less likely to complete than students starting at four-year institutions in high school graduation, the sample includes those who do not graduate high school on time. Because the NLS72 survey follows a 12 th grade cohort and the NELS:88 survey follows an 8 th grade cohort, there are more late high school completers in the latter sample. However, when one conditions on college completion within eight years, over 99% of respondents finish high school on time in both samples. See Appendix B for further discussion of the NLS72 and NELS:88 datasets. 4 All references to two-year schools and community colleges refer to public institutions only. We exclude private two-year schools as they are often professional schools with little emphasis on eventual BA completion. In the NLS72 cohort, 1.7% attended a private two-year school, and 1.1% of the NELS:88 sample attended such an institution. 5 Tabulations from institutional sources based on counts of first-time students in higher education suggest that this shift occurred somewhat earlier. For example, the fraction of first-time students starting at community colleges rose most dramatically between 1960 and 1970 (from 20% to 41%), with a peak of 51% reached in 1975 before returning to 45% in [See: Notably, measures from sources like the CPS that allow for the consideration of a single age cohort confirm the substantial rise in attendance at community colleges among recent high school graduates between 1972 and 1992.
10 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 9 the public and private sectors. For the high school cohort of 1992, the BA completion rate among those starting at public two-year institutions slipped to 17.4% from 23.2% for those graduating in the high school class of At the other extreme, completion rates among students starting at private four-year institutions increased across cohorts, from 68.4% to 78.3%. To wit, there are substantial and increasing differences in the likelihood of degree completion associated with a student s initial college choice Time to Degree We measure time to degree in each survey as the number of years between cohort high school graduation and BA receipt. 6 Because the last NELS:88 follow-up was conducted in 2000, we are forced to truncate the time to degree distributions at eight years, reflecting the time between cohort high school graduation and the last follow-up. We are therefore truncating on a dependent variable, which may introduce a bias into our analysis if the truncation occurs at different points in the full time to degree distribution for each of the two cohorts. Empirically, the proportion of eventual college degree recipients receiving their degrees within eight years has not changed appreciably. The National Survey of College Graduates (2003) allows us to examine year of degree by high school cohort. For the cohorts from the high school classes of 1960 to 1979 for which there are more than 20 years to degree receipt, we find the share of eventual degree recipients finishing within eight years holds nearly constant at between 0.83 and Focusing on more recent cohorts (and, hence, observations with more truncation) we find that in the 1972 high school graduating cohort, 92.3% of those finishing within twelve years had finished in eight years, with a figure of 92.4% for the 1988 cohort. This evidence supports the 6 Given our measure of time to degree, some of the differences across cohorts could be accounted for by delayed entry into college. Empirically, the shift that occurred was too small to account for any of the shift in time to degree. In our samples of those that finished college, only 5.5% of the NLS72 cohort and 7.4% of the NELS:88 cohort delayed initial entry.
11 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 10 assumption made throughout this analysis that the eight-year truncation occurs at similar points in the time to degree distribution in both surveys. To understand the change in the timing of degree receipt across surveys, we show the cumulative share of eight-year degree recipients receiving their degree in years four through eight beyond their cohort s high school graduation (see Appendix B for details on the construction of the time to degree variables). Table 2 presents cumulative time to degree distributions for the full sample and by initial school type. For each year of the time to degree distribution, we calculate the difference between the proportion having graduated in that year or earlier in the NELS:88 survey and the NLS72 survey, along with the p-value of the test that this difference is statistically different from zero. We also present the p-value of a test that the NLS72 distribution first-order dominates the NELS:88 distribution for years 4, 5, and 6 post high school cohort graduation. Appendix C outlines the calculation of p-values and other statistical issues related to the distributional comparisons. There is a significant increase in time to degree over the time period studied in this analysis, as the cumulative distribution function for NLS72 first-order dominates the observed NELS:88 time-to-degree distribution. While more than one half (56.8%) of degree recipients finished within four years from the 1972 high school cohort, the share finishing within four years dropped to 43.6% for the 1992 high school cohort. The extension of time to degree is far from uniform across types of undergraduate institutions, with much larger increases occurring among students starting at public 4-year and 2- year institutions than among those starting at private colleges and universities, as shown in the additional panels of Table 2. The fraction of observed degree recipients finishing within four years falls from 54.6% to 37.1% among students starting at 4-year public universities and from
12 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree % to 21.0% at the 2-year publics. Among students enrolling at private institutions, the decline in 4-year completion is a more modest 5.3 percentage points, and the NLS72 distribution does not first order dominate the NELS:88 distribution for this group. Public colleges and universities are central to our analysis because the majority of undergraduate degrees are awarded by these institutions, and this is the institutional sector where changes in time to degree are most pronounced. Given the considerable heterogeneity in program offerings and resources among BA-granting colleges and universities within the public sector, we present differences in the rate of collegiate attainment and the distribution of time to degree by rank of the initial institution attended by respondents whose first collegiate attendance was at a 4-year public institution in Table 3. 7 While the choice of ranking method and the division of schools is necessarily arbitrary, the results are consistent in showing the distinction between the most resource-intensive universities and other public institutions in the changes observed over time. At one extreme, time to degree decreases and completion rates increase in the cross-cohort comparison of the narrow slice of students at top 15 public institutions. When the band is widened to include the top 50 institutions in the subsequent panel of Table 3, the increase in overall completion rates persists, though there is a small increase in time to degree. Table 3 illustrates that it is among students starting at public institutions outside the top 15 public schools where any erosion in outcomes is apparent. 7 We employ the rankings of public universities assembled by U.S. News and World Report in Other metrics, such as resources per student or selectivity in undergraduate admissions, give similar results. Notably, students at top-15 ranked public universities are only a small share of all undergraduate enrollment (2.9% for the high school class of 1992) and BA recipients (5.8%).
13 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree Credit Attainment Given observed increases in time to degree, it is natural to ask whether these changes reflect increased difficulty in passing through the course sequences or increased course taking. At the extreme, if increased time to degree were to capture only more attainment in the form of course credits, then policy concern over the effects of time to degree would be misplaced as the additional attainment should also translate to labor market benefits. With access to transcript data, we are able to chart the time path of credit accumulation in order test for such an explanation. Average credit accumulation schedules by initial school type are presented in Figure 2. What is evident from the figure is a slower pace of credit accumulation in the 1992 cohort relative to the 1972 cohort for students at four-year public institutions outside the most selective group as well as those students at community colleges. In the first year after high school graduation, students beginning at two-year schools accumulated, on average, about 4.6 fewer credits in the later cohort relative to the class of 1972, while students starting at four-year public schools outside the top 15 accumulated, on average, about 4.1 fewer credits. 8 For students at public non-top 15 universities, earned credits by degree recipients in NELS:88 plainly lag those in NLS72 at the 4 year mark, though differences largely converge after 8 years, with little net change in total credit accumulation. However, while students beginning at two-year schools 8 One point of note is that credits completed actually increase moderately among those beginning at the top public universities and private institutions. We believe this shift reflects several related trends: first, students at these institutions may be more selected (and higher achieving) than in previous cohorts; secondly, students at these institutions are increasingly likely to pursue double majors that require higher total credit accumulation; and, finally, a number of these institutions offer five-year programs that allow students to combine an undergraduate degree with a one-year MA in areas like education or engineering.
14 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 13 accumulate over 6 fewer credits on average after eight years in the NELS:88 survey, they are only a small segment of the population earning a BA. 9 While we find no evidence of increased credit accumulation among students in our two cohorts, it is possible that students are either accumulating or attempting to accumulate more human capital in ways that do not affect total accumulated credits. We have explored changes in the ratio of attempted credits to credits completed and find only a modest increase; these changes suggest attempted credits have not risen appreciably over time and are not large enough to explain much of the increase in time to degree. In addition, it is possible students are double majoring with increasing frequency, which could increase time to degree without altering the total number of accumulated credits. Using counts of double majors in the IPEDS survey, we find that double majoring is reasonably common in the private and top 15 public universities, but quite uncommon for students graduating from non-top 15 public schools. 10 Empirically, double majoring is too low in the sector that has experienced increased time to degree to explain a significant portion of the phenomenon. Finally, students may be taking more difficult courses in areas such as mathematics and science and reducing the number of courses they take per term in order to better their chances of success in such classes. Using the course-level transcript files from the NELS:88 and NLS72 transcript studies, we find no large changes in the distribution of course-taking behavior across fields. 11 Data on degrees conferred show a similar pattern; relative 9 These findings and conclusions also apply to the distribution of credits; means are presented for simplicity in the text. For students outside the most selective colleges, the distribution of credits earned four years after initial enrollment has shifted inward, but after eight years, the two distributions look very similar. 10 The IPEDS survey began collecting information on double majors in Between 2001 and 2005 roughly 7% of those graduating from private colleges and 8% of those graduating from top tier public institutions double majored. In contrast, less that 3% of those graduating from public institutions outside the top 15 did so. 11 While students are attempting a larger proportion of their total credits in business, communications, and computer science, they are shifting away from the hard sciences, education and mathematics. However, it is not at all clear that these shifts represent a shift away from easier to more difficult courses. In addition, the magnitudes of
15 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 14 to the mid to late 1970s, students graduating in the mid to late 1990s were less likely to obtain degrees in either the humanities or education, more likely to obtain degrees in business, and somewhat more likely to obtain degrees in science. 12 It is unlikely such shifts were large enough to account for much, if any, of the drop in completion rates or the increase in time to degree. With no supporting evidence in the form of credit accumulation to suggest a link between time to degree and human capital accumulation, we interpret observed increases in time to degree as a reduction in the rate of human capital accumulation rather than an increase in human capital, with this change concentrated outside the top public schools and private institutions. SECTION 2: POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS FOR INCREASED TIME TO DEGREE AND DECREASED COLLEGE COMPLETION In this section, we consider multiple theoretically plausible explanations for the changing rate of college completion and time to degree as a framework for guiding our empirical methodology and interpreting our results. The explanations on which we focus can be split into demand-side changes brought about by increased enrollment among students with lower precollegiate achievement and more limited capacity to pay for college and supply-side institutional constraints in higher education. Our demand-side analysis focuses on the changing characteristics of the student body: if the characteristics of entering students have shifted over time, aggregate time to degree and completion rates may be affected. Secondly, if students find it the changes are quite small; most fields have experienced changes in their share of credits of less than 1 percentage point. 12 Between 1976 and 1996, the fraction of degrees awarded in the humanities and education combined declined by roughly 11 percentage points, while the share awarded to professional degrees went up by about 6 percentage points, and the share in science and engineering when up by about 2 percentage points. (U.S. Department of Education, Degrees and Other Formal Awards, various years)
16 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 15 increasingly difficult to finance college, with limited access to credit markets to fund an investment like education that cannot be directly collateralized, they may need to increase hours worked to pay for living expenses and tuition, thereby potentially decreasing the rate of collegiate attainment. On the supply-side of the market for higher education, the limited enrollment response of top-tier institutions to higher demand combined with less than dollar-fordollar increases in public subsidies with expansion in enrollment present a concurrent explanation for the extension of time to degree and the reduction in completion rates Changes in Student Composition A simple selection model illustrates the connection between changes in the pool of students entering college, the college completion rate and time to degree. When the returns to a college education increase, as has occurred in the U.S. over the past three decades, more high school graduates will be induced to attend college, thereby changing the composition of enrolled students. The addition of marginal students who are likely to be less academically prepared than the infra-marginal student can work to increase time to degree and decrease completion rates. At the same time, increased rewards to obtaining a BA will put pressure on students to both finish college and to finish faster as the opportunity cost of another semester of enrollment has increased. The net effect on time to degree and completion rates of an increase in the return to a college education is thus theoretically ambiguous. To underscore this point, consider the straightforward comparison between no college and college completion (ignoring the some college alternative for expositional simplicity). Let a distinguish pre-collegiate achievement or college preparedness; assume there is a distribution of a across the population. We assume those who finish college earn Y C, while those who do not
17 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 16 receive Y 0. College completion requires T(a,e) years, where T depends on both pre-collegiate achievement and individual effort (e). Let T 0, T 0, T 0, T 0. Setting the difference a between the lifetime pecuniary value of collegiate and non-collegiate earnings equal to zero and d ln Y taking logs, in a familiar Mincer setup the pecuniary return to college is just, where T( a, e) aa e ee d ln Y Y ln Y C 0 is the college wage premium. Let the non-pecuniary costs of obtaining a degree be given by v (e), where v '( e) 0, v' '( e) 0. Given an individual s achievement and the college d ln Y premium, the net value of going to college is r v ( e). T( a, e) We assume the individual would choose to complete college if the pecuniary return less cost at the optimal level of effort exceeds the required rate of return ( r ). Thus, the individual will obtain a BA ifr d ln Y v ( e) r T( a, e). Differentiating with respect to e, the individual s optimal level of effort is defined implicitly by the expression d ln Y ( ) T v'( e) 2 e T. Define e * as value of e that satisfies this equation. A person chooses to finish college if r v( e * ) r. For given values of d ln Y and r, there will be a threshold value of a such that for values of a above the threshold, the person will go to college, and for values below the threshold she will not. This threshold effect is illustrated in Figure 3; those with achievement above a will complete college while those with achievement below this level will not. Increasing the college wage premium (d ln Y) will have two effects. First, for those who would have completed under the original wage structure ( a a ), * e will increase and T will fall.
18 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 17 Second, the increase in the pecuniary return will generate some additional completers (shown by the shift from a toa ' in Figure 3) who have relatively high time to degree completion. Note that the magnitude of the change in the average time it takes students to finish college depends on the distribution of a and the shape of the T(.,.) and v(.) functions. Thus, with endogenous effort, the effect of increases in the college wage premium on time to degree holding the composition of the undergraduate population constant (in our model, conditional on a) is negative. Unconditionally, the effect is ambiguous. Still, with sufficiently large reductions in academic preparedness among incoming college students, it is reasonable to expect time to degree to increase and completion rates to decrease when the return to college increases Resources per Student and Institutional Constraints The supply-side of the market for higher education defined in terms of the quantity and quality of enrollment opportunities at any point in time is an important determinant of both completion rates and time to degree. With colleges and universities receiving considerable subsidies from state, federal, and private sources, consumers pay only a fraction of the cost of production; student fees cover only about 12 percent of total educational costs at public colleges and universities in the U.S. (Winston, 1999). Moreover, total resources and public subsidies are highly stratified across institutions within states, with educational expenditures per student in public universities more than double those in community colleges (Courant, McPherson and Resch, 2006). There also exists considerable variation across states and within states over time in the level and distribution of public subsidies. In this context, public colleges and universities are unlikely to accommodate fully changes in demand (Bound and Turner, 2007). First, non-tuition revenues and capital stock
19 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 18 including state appropriations, donations from private sources, and campus infrastructure are likely not to respond in full to short run changes in demand. In addition, tuition charges, particularly at public institutions under significant political pressure, are unlikely to increase such that enrollment is regulated through the price mechanism. The adjustment of public colleges and universities to demand increases takes somewhat different forms across the strata of higher education. For top-tier colleges and universities in both the public and private sectors, there is little adjustment in degree (or enrollment) outcomes to demand shocks. To the extent these institutions use selectivity in admissions (which increases with increases in student demand) to regulate enrollment, it is likely outcomes such as completion rates and time to degree are unchanged, or, perhaps, even improve, with increased demand. At the same time, enrollment is relatively elastic among public universities outside of the most selective few. Here, we expect increased demand to lead to increased enrollment and consequent reductions in resources per student (Bound and Turner, 2007). 13 In addition to changes in outcomes linked to the availability of public subsidies within institutions, increases in collegiate demand shift the distribution of college enrollment within a state to open-access four-year institutions and community colleges. Increasing enrollment at these types of institutions relative to private and selective public universities will tend to reduce the overall resources per college student within a state. Estimating the causal impact of type of collegiate experience on attainment and earnings is difficult given the endogeneity of college 13 Bound and Turner (2007) emphasize that direct assessment of the effect of resources per student on degree outcomes using measures of current expenditures or state appropriations is difficult because only part of any observed change in current expenditures is likely to be exogenous, and expenditures translate into resources with long lags. They use variation in the size of the college-age cohort within states to generate plausibly exogenous variation in the availability of higher education resources per student. They find that the elasticity of undergraduate enrollment with respect to cohort size is close to 0.2 at flagship public universities, and the corresponding elasticities are 0.8 at community colleges and about 0.6 at non-flagship public universities.
20 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 19 choice, with students likely to be systematically different across college type. However, available evidence on community colleges suggests that, ceteris paribus, for a student intending to obtain a BA, starting at a two year school both lowers the probability of BA attainment and increases the expected time to degree. 14 Queuing and enrollment constraints in response to limited resources in the public sector may also affect the pace of degree receipt and the overall college completion rate. Despite nominal claims of open enrollment, there is ample evidence of enrollment limits and course closings, particularly in high growth states (see Section and Appendix A). It is straightforward to see how such institutional barriers lead to delays in degree progress. While queuing and shortages of courses are inefficient, such limitations may result from the absence of adjustments in tuition and enrollment at public universities when appropriations per student decrease, leading to increases in time to degree. With substantial state subsidies and below market tuition that may insulate public colleges and universities from some competitive pressures, it is also possible that some of the queuing on the supply-side is indicative of the failure of public institutions to reallocate resources in response to changes in demand (Smith, 2007) Student Responses to Increases in College Costs That college costs have increased dramatically in recent years has been widely noted by the press and policy makers. Models based on full flexibility in the allocation of hours between academic study, work and leisure typically assume the capacity to fully finance collegiate study 14 Researchers have consistently found college students starting at two-year schools are less likely to complete the BA than their peers beginning at four-year schools. Reynolds (2007) uses matching estimators to approach this question, while earlier work uses regression techniques to adjust for observable differences between those starting at two and four-year schools (Rouse, 1995, Leigh and Gill, 2003 and Gonzales, Hilmer, and Sandy 2006).
21 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 20 with intertemporal borrowing and full access to credit markets. In practice, it is quite likely students face some limits in access to capital markets (Becker, 1993). With relatively modest availability of federal aid and limited institutional financial aid funds outside the most affluent colleges and universities, it is plausible that an increasing number of students attend college part time thus extending time to degree because they are credit constrained and unable to borrow to finance full-time attendance. 15 In the context of the Becker-Tomes (1979) model of intergenerational transfers (see also Solon, 2004 and Brown, Mazzocco, Scholz, and Seshadri, 2006), rising tuition charges and falling family income lead to the expectation that students will shoulder a higher fraction of college costs. As such, if students are limited in their capacity to borrow, rising college costs may increase the incidence of employment while in school. 16 If tuition increases combined with imperfect credit markets induce students to work more hours while in college to finance attendance, time to degree may increase if working time crowds out time that would be spent on academic pursuits. It is straightforward to show that in a simple Ben Porath (1967) human capital accumulation model in which a student chooses the rate and level of human capital acquisition, reductions in institutional resources, erosion in student ability and background, and increased working behavior will all serve to increase time to degree and reduce the level of human capital investment. For those who would optimally borrow more than the available credit for education, the reductions in human capital acquisition due to increases in tuition or decreases in family resources will be magnified. 15 The maximum Pell grant was $2400 in 1992 and the borrowing under the Stafford program was limited to $2625 for first year dependent students, meaning a low-income student hoping to attend a residential college full time would face substantial unmet need. See Fitzpatrick and Turner (2007) for further discussion. 16 Keane and Wolpin (2001) show that, in a forward-looking dynamic model with limited access to credit, increases in employment while enrolled in school are the expected response to tuition increases.
22 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 21 Student response to increases in college costs will depend in part on the pricing structure chosen by colleges and universities. One point of distinction across the sectors of higher education is the extent to which institutions price per unit or per term, with students effectively allowed to take as many courses as they can handle within the academic term. If students are free to select the number of credits taken in each term, increases in tuition charges provide an incentive to substitute away from leisure toward academic study; for some students, increased intensity of study can reduce time to degree and, in turn, total college costs. Examples of institutions with this type of fixed term pricing structure include many residential private institutions such as Princeton, Harvard, Amherst, and Williams and selective public universities like the University of Virginia. Institutions serving constituencies focused on full-time residential undergraduates are much more likely to post flat fee tuition schedules, while those with many working and adult students tend to offer pricing per credit hour. Looking at tuition structures offered by public four-year colleges and universities in 1992, more than 52% report a per credit pricing system. Yet, when we focus on the more selective top-15 public institutions, only 1 institution reported tuition on a per credit basis. 17 When we split institutions according to the pricing structure they use rather than by the quality rank of the institution, we find only modest increases have occurred at institutions that charge by the term, with the bulk of the increases occurring at institutions that charge by the unit While historical trends in tuition structure are difficult to find nationally, we collected information from Michigan, California, and Virginia for all public universities going back to the 1970s. The data suggest the structure of tuition is remarkably stable within institution with respect to charging per term or per credit hour. 18 At all public fixed-fee institutions, the proportion of graduates who obtain a BA within 4 years decreased from 56.5% to 48.7%, but within the institutions that charge by the credit hour, the four-year completion rate dropped from 52.7% to 35.4%. It is important to note the pricing structure of universities are often complex and contain aspects of both fixed and hourly pricing. While this simple breakdown presents suggestive evidence that the predominant pricing system is correlated with the increases in time to degree observed in the data, pricing structure is also correlated with other institutional attributes such as the availability of financial aid and the degree of commitment to open access admission policies.
23 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 22 In sum, theoretically plausible explanations for declines in completion rates and increases in time to degree include demand-induced shifts in the characteristics of new college entrants and students at the margin of college completion, changes in the supply-side of higher education reducing resources per students, and increased difficulties in paying for college that may lead to increased employment and reductions in the rate of collegiate attainment. In the next section, we evaluate the empirical evidence in support of these explanations. SECTION 3. EMPIRICAL ANALYSIS OF INCREASED TIME TO DEGREE AND DECREASED COMPLETION RATES 3.1. The Role of Changing Student Attributes Methodology to Assess the Role of Changing Student Attributes Our methodological approach begins with the investigation of the relationship between changes in the pre-collegiate characteristics of college students and the outcomes of college completion and time to degree. The motivation is similar to the Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition in that our objective is to determine the extent to which changes in the distribution of student attributes can explain the observed changes in completion rates and the distribution of time to degree. We re-weight the NELS:88 time to degree distribution and completion rate using the characteristics of students from the NLS72 survey. 19 This calculation leads to a counterfactual time to degree distribution and a counterfactual completion rate in which the proportion of students with a given characteristic or a given set of characteristics has not changed between the two surveys. By comparing the observed NELS:88 outcomes and the re-weighted NELS:88 19 Re-weighting estimators have a long history in statistics dating back at least to the work of Horvitz and Thompson (1952) and have become increasingly popular in economics (see, for example, Dinardo, Fortin and Lemieux, 1996; Heckman, Ichimura and Todd, 1997 and 1998; and Barsky, Bound, Charles and Lupton, 2002). One advantage of these methods over standard regression methods is that they allow researchers to examine distributions, not just means.
24 Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree 23 outcomes, we can determine the proportion of the difference between them that is due to changes in the mix of students with a given attribute attending college. The remainder, or the difference between the re-weighted outcomes and the observed outcomes, reflects changes in other determinants of time to degree or changes over time in how a given characteristic affects degree completion. We perform re-weighting calculations separately for specific characteristics such as ethnicity, family income and pre-collegiate achievement and for all characteristics together. What we are estimating is the change in completion rate and time to degree conditional on various observable characteristics, integrating this change over the distribution of characteristics (see Barsky, Bound, Charles and Lupton (2002) for a further discussion). The validity of our counterfactual calculations (e.g. what would the college completion rate for those attending college in the 1990s been had they been as academically prepared for college as those who attended in the 1970s) depends crucially on the cross sectional association between background characteristics and college outcomes reflecting a causal relationship not seriously influenced by confounding factors. For example, we simulate completion rates under a counterfactual distribution of test scores. For this simulation to accurately represent the counterfactual, it must be the case that the cross-sectional relationship between test scores and the likelihood of college completion and time to degree reflects the impact of pre-collegiate academic preparedness on these outcomes. Regardless of whether the re-weighting calculation produces the true counterfactual, the results present a clear accounting framework for assessing the descriptive impact of the change in the composition of students and the institutions they attend on collegiate attainment outcomes.
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