Panel Paper: The Impact of College Mismatch

Thursday, November 8, 2012 : 3:20 PM
Carroll (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Jeffrey Smith and Eleanor Dillon, University of Michigan

Many students who enroll in a 4-year college do not graduate with a 4-year college degree. In the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, which follows a recent cohort through high school and college, just less than half of the respondents who started at a 4-year college graduated within 5 years. A quarter of college-starters dropped out.  Another 12 percent transferred to a 2-year college. 

We consider how the match between a student’s abilities and the quality of the college she attends changes her probabilities of taking these different paths after starting college. Our measure of college quality comprises both the resources available to students and the average ability of students at that school. More able students are more likely to complete college swiftly and higher quality schools are more likely to guide their students to graduation. However, a poor match between student ability and college quality tempers the advantages of able students and good schools. 

Our work complements recent work by Bowen, Chingos and McPherson (2009) in their book Crossing the Finish Line as well as related (and controversial) recent work by Peter Arcidiacono and co-authors at Duke, as well as an older literature in labor economics, including earlier work by one of us. Like the work by Arcidiacono and co-authors, but unlike much of the earlier literature, we consider outcomes beyond just degree completion, including transfers, time to degree and difficulty of major. Like Crossing the River, but unlike much of the other literature, we focus on both mismatch due to “over-qualification” as well as mismatch due to “under-qualification”.

Building on our earlier work on the determinants of mismatch, and making use of the astoundingly rich set of available conditioning variables in the NLSY-97 data, we consider a selection-on-observed variables identification strategy. Our preliminary findings suggest little if any impact of mismatch of either sort on degree completion. Almost all of the action is in the main effects of student ability and college quality. However, we do find impacts on transfers in the expected directions: students who are “over-qualified” differentially move up the college quality distribution while students who are “under-qualified” differentially move down. Results on time-to-degree and difficulty of major remain in process. Further work will also consider estimates based on plausibly exogenous variation provided by differences across states and over time in two-year and four-year college tuition as well as in the distribution of available college qualities.