Research in Higher Education

, Volume 57, Issue 7, pp 795–822 | Cite as

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

  • Shomon Shamsuddin


Many students enroll in less selective colleges than they are qualified to attend, despite low graduation rates at these institutions. Some scholars have argued that qualified students should enroll in the most selective colleges because they have greater resources to support student success. However, selective college attendance is endogenous, so student outcomes could be due to individual ability, not institutional characteristics. Previous work on college selectivity has focused on the earnings effects of attending elite private universities, overlooking both college graduation impacts and the public institutions that educate most students. I estimate the effect of selective colleges on the probability of bachelor’s degree completion using a restricted-access national dataset and an instrumental variables approach to address the endogeneity of college choice. I find that a 100-point increase in the average SAT score for admitted students is associated with an increase in the probability of graduation by 13 percentage points. In addition, I find suggestive evidence that enrolling in a selective public college has a positive effect on degree completion. The results are robust to a series of sensitivity tests and alternate specifications. The findings suggest strong benefits to enrolling in the most selective colleges that students are qualified to attend and have important implications for decisions to pursue postsecondary education in the face of high student loan debt.


College selectivity Degree completion College choice College enrollment 



I am grateful to Frank Levy, Josh Goodman, Albert Saiz, John Willett, the editor and anonymous reviewers for comments and suggestions. This material is based upon work supported by the Association for Institutional Research, the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation, and the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative under Association for Institutional Research Grant Number DG12-70. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association for Institutional Research, the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation, or the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tufts UniversityMedfordUSA

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