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Jonathan James |


Jonathan James

Jonathan James is a former research economist in the Research Department.

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Economic Trends

Delaying Enrollment and College Completion

Jonathan James

The effect of a postsecondary education on labor market outcomes has been a central focus for policymakers and researchers. One reason for the interest is that significant evidence suggests that workers with a postsecondary education, in particular a bachelor’s degree, enjoy higher wages and higher job satisfaction. However, only about 30 percent of individuals who start a postsecondary education (including four-year, two-year, and less than two-year schools) will actually attain a bachelor’s degree, even looking six years past their first date of enrollment.

One of the strongest correlates with bachelor degree completion is the timing of postsecondary education. About two-thirds of new postsecondary enrollees arrive immediately after completing their secondary education, while the other one-third experience a gap of one year or more between high school completion and beginning their postsecondary career. Between these two groups, those that delay postsecondary education are five times less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree in six years than those who begin immediately from high school.

Even restricting the comparison to those who only delay their postsecondary education by one year, this group is still more than three times less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree, with a completion rate of 14 percent, compared to 43 percent for immediate enrollers. In addition, although this group is more likely to earn other credentials from their postsecondary education, like associate’s degrees and certificates, they are also significantly more likely to end their postsecondary education without receiving any degree or certificate at all, with 44 percent of those delaying college by one year dropping out altogether compared to 27 percent for immediate enrollers.

Remarkably, most first-time postsecondary enrollees report long-term educational aspirations of a bachelor’s degree or higher. Those not delaying postsecondary education have the highest expectations, with more than 90 percent expecting a bachelor’s degree or higher. Those delaying postsecondary education by one year have very similar expectations, at 83 percent. Perhaps more surprising, more than 50 percent of those first-time enrollees who have a 10-year gap or more since high school completion aspire to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher.

How can we understand these large differences in outcomes despite very similar expectations? One explanation may be that these individuals, even those delaying postsecondary school by just one year, differ from those that do not delay in meaningful ways, and the differences affect their probability of completion. Four relevant factors would be academic preparation, the level of the institution initially enrolled in, the intensity of enrollment, and employment while enrolled.

Looking at these factors, we see noticeable differences for those delaying postsecondary education by one year. First, these individuals are less likely to have taken the ACT or SAT, and those who do take it have lower scores on average than those who begin their postsecondary education directly after high school. Second, only 24 percent of students delaying their enrollment begin their postsecondary education in a four-year institution, compared with 58 percent for immediate enrollers. While individuals are able to transfer to a four-year institution from a two-year school and complete their bachelor’s degree, this occurs in about only 10 percent of cases.

Third, the majority of non-delayers, 78 percent, report being enrolled in school exclusively full-time, while for those delaying one year the proportion is 59 percent. Finally, highly related is the difference in employment responsibilities between the two groups. Those delaying college are twice as likely to be employed full-time during their first year of college compared to immediate enrollers.

Restricting the comparison to similarly situated students provides better insight into the relationship between these variables. Looking at just those individuals who start their postsecondary education in a two-year school, those coming directly from high school are only 70 percent more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than those who delay, compared to three times more likely when we just compare all students who delay against those who don’t.

Turning to first-time four-year enrollers, immediate enrollers are twice as likely to complete a bachelor’s degree, at 64 percent versus 32 percent. If we condition this population even further and examine those enrolling in four-year schools with ACT scores above the median, the gap shrinks further, such that immediate enrollers are only 50 percent more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree.

These results indicate that observable factors are important in explaining part of the disparity in completion rates. However,  even after restricting the analysis to similar populations, large differences still remain. We cannot infer a causal relationship in these differences from such a simple analysis. Further study requires understanding the importance of unobserved factors influencing these patterns. For example, some individuals may be more committed to completing a bachelor’s degree, and their level of commitment may be reflected in the fact that they choose to begin college immediately from high school. Alternatively, around 90 percent of those delaying school say that working was the reason for the delay. This may suggest that these individuals may be more income-constrained and may find a bachelor’s degree too costly to complete.

One thing is clear. While policymakers espouse the benefits of higher education, encouraging individuals to begin a postsecondary education is one thing; getting them to complete it may be a completely different story.