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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, Ralph; Stinebrickner, Todd
Organization(s): National Bureau of Economic Research
Publication: National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper
Season: Spring 2013

Background:
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.

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

Findings/Results:
  • 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

Population/Participants/Subjects:
Students who entered Berea College, Kentucky, in 2000 and 2001. Final sample consisted of 341 students.

Year data is from:
2000-2005

Setting:
School

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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