Bending the Curve: Institutional Factors Associated with Graduation Rates

Juliana de Castro Galvao, Frederick Tucker, and Paul Attewell. Higher Education Policy, February 2023.


We analyze a decade of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data for four-year colleges to investigate how much institutions have improved their graduation rates from 2008 through 2018, once controlling for institutional and student body characteristics. We find substantial improvement to graduation rates at public colleges, modest improvement at private not-for profits, and a decline in graduation at the for-profit sector. We then investigate whether improvements to graduate rates are associated with variation in student-body composition, selectivity, and institutional expenditures, using pooled cross-sectional, Prais-Winsten, and college fixed effect models. We find that most between-college variation in graduation rates overtime reflects variation in the composition of a college’s student body and in instructional expenditures. Our Bending the Curve metric utilizes the cross-sectional models to calculate predicted graduation rates for each college and determines how much they exceeded or failed to meet expectations. Unadjusted graduation measures, such as IPEDS’ rates that fail to adjust for these compositional factors, are poor indicators of institutional effectiveness and can mislead stakeholders who use them as an indicator of college performance.

Quantifying and Qualifying the Adjunct Penalty: The Impact of Faculty Composition on Postsecondary Value at 4-year Institutions

Frederick Tucker. Report funded by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2024.


This report explores the impact that institutional reliance on different types of adjunct faculty has on graduation rates and postsecondary value at four-year colleges and universities. Institution-level data from IPEDS, College Scorecard, and the Equitable Value Explorer is utilized in a series of ordinary least squares analyses to measure the association between institutional reliance on adjunct faculty, and the academic and economic outcomes of the student-body. Results suggest that greater percentages of full-time, adjunct faculty––as opposed to part-time adjuncts or tenured/tenure-track faculty––are associated with lower graduation rates and postsecondary value at four-year institutions, net of institutional, student-body, and faculty controls. Greater faculty pay is also significantly associated with higher graduation rates and postsecondary value.

Early Indicators of Student Success: A Multi-state Analysis

Paul Attewell, Christopher Maggio, Frederick Tucker, Jay Brooks, Matt S. Giani, Xiaodan Hu, Tod Massa, Feng Raoking, David Walling, & Nathan Wilson (Journal of Postsecondary Student Success, 2022)


This paper reports the results of a four-state collaboration––Texas, New York, Virginia, and Illinois––that uses Student Unit Record Database Systems that track students from high school into college. Using similar statistical models across four state university systems, we identify individual students at greatest risk of non-completion quite accurately at early stages, allowing college staff to prioritize interventions and supports aimed at improving completion for those at greatest risk. Our logistic regression models rely on variables available to university administrators at student entry, including high school GPA, standardized test scores, parental income, remediation requirements, declared major, and college credits attempted in the first semester. Our models do not use gender, race, or ethnicity in determining probability of non-completion, making them useful for public university administrators. 

The STEM grading penalty: An alternative to the “leaky pipeline” hypothesis

Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell. Science Education. 2020; 104: 714– 735.


The low number of baccalaureates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is often viewed as problematic for the US’s economic competitiveness, leading scholars to search for explanations for STEM retention. Our analyses of the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study indicate that the notion of a so‐called “leaky STEM pipeline” out of STEM majors overstates the problem because it neglects the substantial influx into STEM from other majors throughout college. Researchers concerned with STEM retention should focus on a broader defined group of “STEM‐actives”: A combination of freshman students who declared a STEM major or who take a considerable number of STEM credits. Among these students (N  = 3,020) we examine the variation in the relatively lower grades that many individuals earn in STEM courses compared to their non‐STEM courses. The size of an undergraduate’s “STEM‐grading penalty”—an individual grading disparity—in the first couple of college semesters is significantly associated with the probability of leaving STEM. The influence of this STEM‐penalty on STEM graduation chances is robust to college students’ variation in both general academic achievement and STEM‐specific preparation, thereby eliminating a large portion of the effect due to skills, performance, and selection. Our analyses expands on previous research regarding relative grading conducted within STEM‐fields.

Reconsidering the ‘Meritocratic Power of a College Degree’

Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. (forthcoming)

Open Access


Sociologists of social stratification have repeatedly documented the transmission of socio-economic advantage across generations in the US population as a whole. However, some scholars argue that this link between family background and status attainment does not hold for individuals who attain a bachelor’s degree, claiming that a degree can erase the influence of social origins, a position known as the ‘college as equalizer’ thesis. In this paper, we present new analyses from three successive waves of the National Survey of College Graduates. All three show a substantial intergenerational association between parents’ educational attainment and their collegiate offspring’s earnings when aged 30 to 55. This relationship is evident for men and for women considered separately, and for individuals who earn only a bachelor’s degree, as well as for those attaining higher degrees. The intergenerational coefficients are consistent over time and are not attributable to age or career stage. Overall, these analyses suggest that the intergenerational transmission of status remains strong even among the college-educated and that this has been the case for birth cohorts spanning from the late 1930s to the 1980s.

The Relationship Between Work During College and Post College Earnings

Daniel Douglas and Paul Attewell. Frontiers of Sociology (10 December 2019)



Prior research suggests that undergraduates employed during term time are less likely to graduate. Using transcript data from a large multi-campus university in the United States, combined with student earnings data from state administrative records, the authors find that traditional-age students who worked for pay during college on average earned more after leaving college than similar students who did not work. This post-college earnings premium is on par with the benefit from completing a degree, even after controlling for demographic and academic achievement characteristics, across various student sub-groups, and including models that account for selection bias. Implications of these findings for theories of education and social stratification, and for educational policy are considered.

The Post-College Fortunes of Humanities Graduates

Christopher Maggio, Frederick Tucker, and Paul Attewell (under review)


Using recent data from the National Survey of College Graduates, we examine several post-college outcomes for bachelor’s graduates in the humanities, compared with other majors. Humanities graduates fare worse in terms of family formation, employment, and post-college earnings. These drawbacks occur despite the fact that, on average, graduates in the humanities come from more privileged family backgrounds, have had stronger academic preparation in high school, and carry less student debt. Nevertheless, humanities baccalaureates earn substantially less than their classmates with other majors, long after graduation. They are also less likely to be married and are significantly less satisfied with their jobs, on several dimensions. We discuss these findings in the light of the theory of ‘risky majors’ and examine whether graduate and professional degrees mitigate some of the disadvantages. We also provide direct comparisons to arts and education majors, who share some but not all of these difficulties.

Social Dimensions of Student Debt: A Data Mining Analysis

Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell. Journal of Student Financial Aid. Vol 49, No 1. 2019.


Media commentary on undergraduates’ loan debt portrays a crisis in which many students are unable to pay back their loans, having borrowed large sums and lacking sufficient post-college income to repay. Several scholars have questioned the media accounts, noting that indebtedness is highest among students from high income families, while defaults predominate among low debt students. Using a data mining technique known as CART, we analyze national data on the indebtedness of recent baccalaureate graduates, to uncover combinations of social characteristics that are associated with loan pressure: the ratio of indebtedness to post-college earnings. We find that students from lower income families who attend expensive institutions – especially for-profit colleges – accumulate high debt. In contrast to earlier scholarship, after controlling for the net cost of attending a college, we find that lower-income students face much higher loan pressure than students from more affluent families.

Delayed Time-to-Degree and Post-College Earnings

Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell. Journal of Research in Higher Education. Published online 26 October 2019.


Increasingly, undergraduates take more than 4 years to complete a baccalaureate, a situation widely perceived as a waste of time and money, for students, their families, and taxpayers. We first identify several phenomena that result in a longer time to degree and document the frequency of such delays. Then, using nationally representative data from the Baccalaureate & Beyond 1993–2003 surveys, we estimate the relationship between delayed time-to-degree and later employment and postcollege earnings, using negative binomial hurdle models. We find that delayed time-to-degree is not related to employment chances but is associated with lower post-college earnings: averaging 8–15%, depending on the length of delay. This average disadvantage is in line with signaling theory. The unique contribution of this study is its thorough analysis of different types of delay, as caused by stopping out and employment. Contrary to the popular assumption that delay is a waste of college resources or a student’s time, we find that delayed graduation in combination with working full-time during college has no negative relationship to post-college earnings. We discuss the time-investment trade-offs and the implications for the applicability of human capital theory to college graduation delays.

The Value of an Incomplete Degree: Heterogeneity in the Labor Market Benefits of College Non-Completion.

Matt Giani, Paul Attewell, David Walling. Journal of Higher Education. August 2019


Many states have set college completion goals and begun funding institutions at least partially based on credentials conferred to address the issue of low college completion rates. An assumption underlying these approaches is that college non-completion does not “pay off.” Using data on a cohort of Texas high school graduates in 2000, we compare the labor outcomes fifteen years later of college non-completers to non-college-goers. We find that students with “some college” have significantly better labor outcomes compared to their peers who do not go to college, with low-income students and students of color generally deriving the greatest benefits. Our results suggest college non-completion functions for many as a stepping-stone into a better labor market position.

The Vertical Transfer Penalty among Bachelor’s Degree Graduates

Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell. Journal of Higher Education.  Published online: 24 May 2019  


Numerous studies have investigated the consequences of vertical transfer on students’ higher education outcomes in comparison to ‘native four-year students’ – those who went straight from high school into a bachelor’s program. However, the long-term labor market outcomes for vertical transfer students are understudied. Using nationally-representative data from the National Survey of College Graduates 2015, we estimate the relationship between starting in a community college (vs. at a four-year college) and post-college earnings and employment, in ways that correct for selection bias and over-dispersion. We estimate a roughly 14% earnings disadvantage for baccalaureates who started at a two-year rather than 4-year institution, regardless of college major. No effect was found on graduates’ employment chances.

The Surprising Labor Market Success of Part-Time Community College Students

Christopher Maggio and Paul Attewell. Community College Journal of Research and Practice. May 2019.


Considerable research has focused on the academic outcomes of part-time undergraduates. Fewer studies, however, have addressed their post-college labor market outcomes. This study compares the post-college earnings of community college students at a large, urban, public university system based on different full-time, part-time, and stop-out trajectories during their first four semesters. We find in many cases that part-time students earn as much as their full-time classmates post-college. Community college students who enroll part-time during their first four semesters earn significantly more after college than full-timers. These effects are evident among those who graduate or earn sixty credits and among those who do not. Compared to consistent, full-time enrollees, two groups of community college undergraduates have significantly lower post-college earnings among the full sample and those earning a degree or sixty credits: full-timers who interrupt their studies with a stop-out, and students who mix full-time with part-time and stopping-out.

Working During College: Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone?

Daniel Douglas and Paul Attewell. Report prepared for Education and Employment Research Center, Rutgers University. January 2019.


Prior research suggests that undergraduates employed during term time are less likely to graduate. Using transcript data from a large multi-campus university, combined with student earnings data, we find that traditional-age students who worked for pay during college on average earned more after leaving college than similar students who did not work. This post-college earnings premium is on par with the benefit from completing a degree, even after controlling for demographic and academic achievement characteristics, across various student sub-groups, and including models that account for selection bias. We consider the implications of these findings for educational policy.