A New Measure of College Quality to Study the Effects of College Sector and Peers on Degree Attainment

By Betsy Prueter

According to a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, students who start at a two-year college are less likely to graduate with a college degree than students who start at a four- year college. Their research team also found that while individual ability is key to succeeding in a two-year college, the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution is more strongly related to the abilities of a student’s peers. The paper provides a more nuanced look at two-year colleges and their relatively quality and analyzes this “peer effect.”

Some of the related findings are as follows:

  • In general, recent high school graduates who start at two-year colleges are 50 percentage points less likely to earn a B.A. than those who begin at four-year colleges.
  • Researchers found that roughly 40% of the attainment gap can be explained by average peer quality (which is lower at two-year schools). The rest of the gap appears to be a result of a combination of barriers to transferring, resource constraints and a student’s own academic ability.
    • In general, students who attend open-access community colleges have lower academic-achievement levels than do students at four-year colleges.
    • Community college students enrolled at institutions with high achieving peers are only 30 percentage points less likely to earn a degree than students at four-year schools.
  • The paper suggests that students are choosing community colleges for financial reasons rather than academic reasons.
    • While examining PSAT scores, researchers found overlap in average scores between two-year and four-year college students.