Berkeley or Bust? Estimating the Causal Effect of College Selectivity on Bachelor’s Degree Completion (Summary)

Author: Shomon Shamsuddin

Published: Research in Higher Education (2016) 57:795–822

DOI: 10.1007/s11162-016-9408-0

This study finds that students who attend more selective universities were more likely to graduate, irrespective of factors such as prior academic performance or socioeconomic factors.


Many students will attend university and not graduate. At American universities with relatively low admissions standards (accepting over 75% of applicants), one in every two students will not graduate.

Completion of a degree is associated with higher earnings over a lifetime, assisting in paying back any debt incurred at university. However, students who don’t graduate are often left with debt accrued without the graduate wage premium to help pay it back.

Students from low income backgrounds are more likely to attend less selective universities than they have the capability to be admitted into, so this issue is particularly relevant to these students. Attending the most selective university possible for each student would make graduation more likely and reduce the risk of leaving university with no degree and debt.

The Study

The study used data from a longitudinal study which began in 1997, tracking participants every year until 2010. It used regression techniques to analyse characteristics and backgrounds of the students, in addition to the universities they studied at.

The study focusses on American public universities where most American undergraduates attend, excluding elite Ivy League universities which educate 1% of the country’s undergraduates.

Selectivity of a university was measured by the average entry score of admitted students, as the researcher notes that more traditional measures of selectivity (such as the proportion of applications accepted) can easily be manipulated by universities.


The data confirmed that attending a more selective university was associated with a higher probability of graduating. While there was no doubt that probability of graduation was higher at these universities, the results were not precise enough to give a clear indication of how much more likely.

High school academic performance, mother’s education levels, race and gender were all considered, and graduation rates were higher even without these factors.

While the study can’t explain why degree completion is more likely at more selective universities, Shamsuddin presents several possible factors which may contribute to this result. The key difference measured between universities was selectivity, so it is possible that networks of driven and capable peers play a role in helping students through university. It is also possible that more selective universities have more resources available, being able to provide more support to students, and attracting better quality staff.

Key Takeaway

Completion of a university degree can have serious financial consequences for students, and low graduation rates make this an important issue.

These findings are particularly valuable for students from low income backgrounds, who are currently more likely to attend less selective universities than they are capable of, but may want to take this new information into account when choosing a university. By enrolling in the most selective university their grades will allow them to, students can increase their likelihood of graduation and earning the higher wages associated with a degree.



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