# Three Graphs About Trying and Failing

The true return to college heavily depends on the probability of successful completion. That probability in turn heavily depends on pre-college academic performance. How heavily? Check out these three graphs from Bound, Lovenheim, and Turner’s “Why Have College Completion Rates Declined?” (*American Economic Journal *2010). BLT compare results for the NLS72 (high school graduation cohort of 1972) and NELS:88 (high school graduation cohort of 1992), using a standardized high school math test to measure pre-college performance.

First, check out your probability of *trying *college if you finish high school.

Notice: By 1992, college is the default choice for most of the achievement distribution. Almost half of high school grads in the *lowest* quartile of math performance – and two-thirds in the second-lowest quartile – try college.

Next, look at the probability of finishing college if you *try* college. To get credit for finishing college, you have to graduate within eight years of your cohort high school graduation. For the class of 1972, that’s 1980; for the class of 1992, that’s 2000.

Probability of success for the bottom half of the distribution started low in absolute terms: about one-quarter for the bottom quartile, and one-third for the second quartile. Over time, though, the bottom’s success rates have gone from worse to awful: Barely 10% of those who try college manage to get over the finish line.

Last, let’s multiply the preceding probabilities together to get the the probability of *finishing* college if you finish high school.

Notice: Although kids in the bottom quartile became much more likely to *try* college, they became no more likely to *finish*. The fruits of effort for the second quartile are also underwhelming. How can this be? Because the probability of finishing college if you try college actually *fell* for the bottom three-quarters of the distribution! This is the fruit of America’s

college-for-all mania.

Will I tell *my* kids to go to college? Sure. Does this make me a big hypocrite? Not at all. I shall follow the same principle I commend to others: *Encourage high academic achievers to go to college, and urge the rest to do something else. *More specifically: Push college for the top quartile, tolerate it for the third, discourage if for the second, and decry it for the first.

To be clear, this is *prudential *advice aimed at individual students, not a public policy recommendation. From a social point of view, I’d only push college on the top 5%. Unless, of course, the student loves learning enough to attend classes unofficially. The more of these rare unicorns on campus, the merrier.

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