When “anything could happen,” students opt for shorter programs

A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that disadvantaged students often opt for shorter programs because they expect life events will derail their pursuit of a four-year degree.

Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds often opt for two-year programs over bachelor’s, and increasingly are interested in credentials that can be earned in a year or less. Those programs are attractive because they typically are lower cost and are designed to move people through education and into the workforce quickly.

In other words, they can provide faster returns—a good proposition for someone who is struggling to make ends meet.

Experts also worry, though, that students from poor backgrounds in communities without a history of college going often lack the information they need to make informed decisions about the tradeoffs between shorter and longer-term programs. Bachelor’s degrees, on average, provide higher wages and overall financial returns than either certificates or associates.

The big idea: A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research tackles these questions head on. It draws on survey data from National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and qualitative interviews with young adults in high-poverty neighborhoods in Baltimore conducted as part of the Moving to Opportunity study between 2010 and 2012. 

It finds that cost, access to quality information, and the need to earn money quickly are factors in college decisions. But it adds an important twist: people who have experienced serious instability and adversity tend to have learned that life gets in the way of long-term plans.

Call it the “anything could happen” effect. (It’s even in the study’s title.) And the research found it’s a significant factor in why disadvantaged students opt for community college or certificate programs. They fear that future shocks will derail them if they pursue a degree program that would take four or five years, while a one- or two-year commitment might be possible.

“Their choice of postsecondary institution was an expression of their beliefs about, or fears for, the future,” the authors write.

‘A rational choice’

Those fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way: students who start their education at a community college or shorter-term provider are far less likely than those who start at a four-year institution to ever earn a bachelor’s. But the authors caution that students’ fears are grounded in reality—young adults who expect to experience adverse events like eviction, violence, or death in the family are, in fact, more likely to. And their education is often derailed as a result.

In other words, disadvantaged students are ultimately making a rational decision when they opt for shorter-term programs.

“It’s a hyper-rational thing,” said Nicholas Papageorge, an economist, co-author of the report, and associate director of the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University. “When you see people doing things that don’t pass the cost-benefit analysis, there’s a tendency to say they’re wrong about something, they don’t have the right information or beliefs, or they’re impatient.”

But often, he said, some factor—such as the odds of life events keeping them from ever graduating—is just missing from the analysis.

To be sure, students from disadvantaged backgrounds would benefit from better information and guidance, Papageorge said. But he doesn’t believe there’s compelling evidence that they undervalue four-year degrees.

“When you talk to these kids, they tend to say that if you can get through a four-year degree—which they don’t think they can do—you’re going to be rich. So if anything, they may be overestimating the returns.”

What to do: Just because the preference for shorter programs is rational, however, doesn’t mean it couldn’t be changed.

Papageorge noted that loosening scholarship and federal grant rules—such as the timelines for completion—might shift expectations about the impact of adverse events and thus encourage more disadvantaged students to choose bachelor’s degree programs. He also said that being clearer about the guidance and services that four-year colleges provide might help.

Colleges and universities, for example, increasingly are providing wrap-around supports to help students with mental health, food and housing insecurity, and transportation. And many institutions have used federal and state pandemic-response funding to provide emergency grants to students in financial distress. Momentum around emergency loans and grants was growing even before the pandemic—a recognition that a flat tire or overdue childcare payment can easily spiral into missing work, missing classes, and being forced to drop out.

The data and interviews used in the study are from about a decade ago, before colleges began thinking systematically about providing for basic needs and emergencies.

The new research also reinforces the idea that, for many students, “time is the enemy” of completion. Coined by Complete College America, the concept underpins the movement toward providing stackable credentials on the way to a bachelor’s degree. In theory, stackable pathways account for the high likelihood of shocks—and stopouts—by building from certificate to associate to bachelor’s.

Papageorge hasn’t studied the approach, but felt it was supported by what he and his colleagues have heard from students in their research. “It’s an insurance policy against the bad thing happening, but you still have a chance to take the bigger risk that has the bigger reward,” he said. “It removes the downside.”

Parting thought: Papageorge thinks public and private four-year institutions could learn a lot about serving less-advantaged students from their two-year and for-profit counterparts. “For-profits are incredibly nimble, and we would probably do well to emulate them somewhat,” he said. “They’re very attuned to a specific type of student who doesn’t know how to navigate higher education.”

It’s particularly important for colleges to demonstrate that they’re willing to meet students where they are. Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds are stopped by the feeling that their lives aren’t stable enough, Papageorge said.

“It’s their sense of how together everything has to be to be successful at college.”

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