Archived Information

Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor's Degree Attainment — June 1999

Executive Summary

Answers in the Tool Box is a study about what contributes most to long-term bachelor's degree completion of students who attend 4-year colleges (even if they also attend other types of institutions).

Degree completion is the true bottom line for college administrators, state legislators, parents, and most importantly, students—not retention to the second year, not persistence without a degree, but completion.

This study tells a story built from the high school and college transcript records, test scores, and surveys of a national cohort from the time they were in the 10th grade in 1980 until roughly age 30 in 1993. The story gives them 11 years to enter higher education, attend a 4-year college, and complete a bachelor's degree. In these respects—based in transcripts and using a long-term bachelor's degree attainment marker—this story is, surprisingly, new.

This study was motivated by four developments in higher education during the 1990s:

  1. The growing public use of institutional graduation rates as a measure of accountability, and the tendency in public policy and opinion to blame colleges for students' failure to complete degrees and/or for failure to complete degrees in a timely manner.

  2. An ever expanding proportion of high school graduating classes entering postsecondary education, and new federal policies encouraging even more students to enter or return to higher education. Our system is being challenged simply to maintain, let alone improve, college graduation rates.

  3. The increasing tendency, overlooked in both policy and research, for students to attend two, three, or more colleges (sometimes in alternating patterns, sometimes simultaneously) in the course of their undergraduate careers.

  4. The rising heat of disputes involving admissions formulas at selective colleges where affirmative action policies have been challenged. These disputes, carried into the media and hence dominating public understanding, involve two indicators of pre­college attainment—grades/class rank versus test scores—without any reference to high school curriculum and its role in the degree completion rates of the mass of minority students.

The story of what contributes most to bachelor's degree attainment works toward six ordinary least squares regression equations that progressively add blocks of key variables following the progress of students from high school into higher education and through the first true year of attendance. The penultimate model (the fifth in the series) accounts for about 43 percent of the variance in bachelor's degree completion. The sixth equation simply indicates that one hits a plateau of explanation at this point. For a story-line such as this, 43 percent is a very high number. A five-step logistic regression then provides both a dramatic underscoring of the principal findings and some enlightening variations.

There are 11 variables in the penultimate linear regression model. The two most important variables, accounting for the bulk of the model's explanatory power are:

In the logistic version of the penultimate model, the same 11 variables (out of 24) are statistically significant, but those displaying the strongest relationships to degree completion (the highest "odds ratios") are all post-matriculation phenomena: continuous enrollment, community college to 4-year college transfer, and the trend in one's college grades.

Among the 11 variables, the following are not usually found in similar analyses:

The only demographic variable that remains in the equation at its penultimate iteration is socioeconomic status, and by the time students have passed through their first year of college, SES provides but a very modest contribution to eventual degree completion. No matter now many times (and in different formulations) we try to introduce race as a variable, it does not meet the most generous of threshold criteria for statistical significance.

Selected Findings

Conclusions That Follow from These Findings

What We Learned: Variables to Discard

Examples of stock building-block variables that are discarded because of weak architecture:

. . . and Variables Reconstructed

What We Learned: Principles to Guide Research and Evaluation

The monograph concludes with "tool box" recommendations to those who execute policy regarding both pre-college opportunity-to-learn and post-matriculation advisement. The tool box metaphor is a logical consequence of the analysis. It says that if we are disappointed with uneven or inequitable outcomes of postsecondary education, we must focus our efforts on aspects of student experience that are realistically subject to intervention and change. We do not have tools to change intentions or perceptions, or to orchestrate affective influences on students' decisions. The events of students' life course histories through their 20s lie largely beyond the micromanagement of collegiate institutions. But we do have the tools to provide increased academic intensity and quality of pre-college curricula, to assure continuous enrollment, to advise for productive first-year college performance, and to keep community college transfer students from jumping ship to the 4-year institution too early.

The recommendations thus address dual enrollment, direct provision of secondary school curriculum by college instructors, an 11-month rolling admissions cycle for all 4-year colleges, using Internet situated courses to keep college students continuously enrolled (even for one course), implementation of institutional policies restricting the extent of course withdrawals/ incompletes/repeats, realistic credit loads, and advisement that is both sensitive and sensible.

The story and its analyses are derived from and apply to a cohort whose history covers the period 1980-1993. There is another and more contemporary cohort whose history, beginning in 1988, is still in progress. Will the story-line change? Will the analyses be validated? Will we have attained greater equity in degree-completion rates for minority students? Have attendance patterns become even more complex, and more or oriented toward competences and certifications as opposed to degrees? Only a full data-gathering for this cohort in the year 2000 and the collection of its college transcripts in 2001 will tell.

Acknowledgments [Table of Contents] On Reading Tables In This Study