College Late Departure in the United States: Exploring the Scope and Cause of Dropout Among Students Who Are Close to Earning a Degree
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AbstractAlthough many U.S. college students drop out after their second year of school, research on withdrawal has mostly focused on early departure. As a result, late departure–the phenomenon whereby students leave after making considerable academic progress–has been understudied. This dissertation is comprised of two studies that examine the scope and potential cause of dropout among students who are close to earning a degree. In the first study, I conduct descriptive and event history analyses using data from the Florida Department of Education and Ohio Board of Regents to examine dropout as a function of credit attainment. I find that late departure is widespread, particularly at two- and open-admission, four-year institutions. Fourteen percent of all degree-seeking entrants to public institutions in Florida and Ohio and one-third of all dropouts completed at least three-quarters of the credits typically required for graduation before leaving without a degree.
In the second study, I examine the extent to which late dropout is explained by time limits on the availability of need-based financial aid. In 2012-13, a new lifetime limit on Pell Grants eliminated a subset of continuing, income-eligible students from receiving grant aid. Using data from the University System of Georgia and a matched difference-in-differences research design, I compare the outcomes of Pell recipients who were affected and unaffected by the new eligibility rule before versus after the rule change. As a result of the new lifetime limit, students on average borrowed more to continue pursuing their degree and accelerated their time to completion. The rule change increased the probability of re-enrollment and bachelor’s degree completion within 8 years by 2-3 percentage points. However, I find no evidence that the new lifetime limit decreased the probability of degree attainment overall. These findings suggest that aid exhaustion is not a major cause of dropout among low-income students who enroll for at least five full-time equivalent years, although decisions over how to allocate late-stage financial aid are consequential for this group.
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