Academic Performance and College Dropout: Using Longitudinal Expectations Data to Estimate a Learning Model

Issue/Topic: Postsecondary Success--Completion; Postsecondary Success--Retention/Persistence
Author(s): Stinebrickner, Todd; Stinebrickner, Ralph
Organization(s): National Bureau of Economic Research
Publication: National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper
Season: Spring 2013

Obtaining data that sheds light on how students make the decision to drop out of college is difficult. Both administrative records and longitudinal surveys fall short because of timing/frequency issues and because they don't tend to provide information about student belief sets. A more dynamic decision model could provide valuable information to policymakers.

To understand the multiple factors--unrelated to financial resources--that play a prominent role in why low-income students drop out of college

  • A significant percentage of students who drop out of college do so because of factors attributed to what a student learns about her academic performance: It explains 45% of the dropout that occurs in the first year of college, 45% in the first two years and 35% in the first three years

  • Students who perform poorly tend to learn that staying in college is less worthwhile

  • Poor performance both substantially decreases the enjoyability of school and substantially influences beliefs about post-college earnings

  • Learning about grade performance becomes a less important determinant of dropout after the midpoint of college

  • Dropout primarily happens because students are forced out of school by grade progression cutoffs and because poor grade performance lowers the financial return

  • Males are more likely than females to drop out because of academic factors rather than because of some inherent dislike of school.

Policy Implications/Recommendations:
  • Ensuring that pre-college students have correct perceptions about the level of preparation necessary to be successful in college may be important in increasing student effort at earlier stages of schooling.

  • Improving academic preparation can influence both the enjoyability of college and the financial returns to college and therefore impact dropout rates.

  • Information or counseling during college may impact dropout but without changing current levels of academic preparation, counseling may not be the most effective use of resources.

Research Design:
Longitudinal survey

Students who entered Berea College, Kentucky, in 2000 and 2001. Final sample consisted of 341 students.

Year data is from:


Data Collection and Analysis:
Administrative records linked to analysis of survey data: students were surveyed 12 times each year while in school. A baseline survey was also used immediately before each cohort entered college. Researchers created a learning model focused on beliefs about academic performance, financial returns to schooling and how much a student will enjoy school


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