Growing up in Miami in the 1990s, Carlos Escanilla was a lot more interested in hanging out with friends and playing music than in school. The son of immigrants from Chile, he slogged through high school with a C+ average and scored about 900 out of 1,600 on the SAT. “I was convinced I was going to be a famous rock star,” Mr. Escanilla, now 36, said.
When people talk about four-year colleges not being for everyone, the teenage Carlos Escanilla is the sort of student they have in mind. He seemed to be a much better fit for a job, a vocational program or a community college.
Yet on a summer night in 1997, a friend persuaded Mr. Escanilla to try to enroll at nearby Florida International University. The college was growing and might be willing to take a chance on a marginal student. And, Mr. Escanilla began to realize, he didn’t have anything better to do.
“I didn’t have a band, I didn’t have a way to tour,” he says. “I didn’t have any prospects.” Two months later, he was sitting in classes at Florida International.
The fate of students like Mr. Escanilla is crucial to today’s debate over who should go to college: How much money should taxpayers spend subsidizing higher education? How willing should students be to take on college debt? How hard should Washington and state governments push colleges to lift their graduation rates? All of these questions depend on whether a large number of at-risk students are really capable of completing a four-year degree.
As it happens, two separate — and ambitious — recent academic studies have looked at precisely this issue. The economists and education researchers tracked thousands of people over the last two decades in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere who had fallen on either side of hard admissions cutoffs. Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don’t clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don’t attend any four-year college.
Such stark cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment. Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn’t, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college.
And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.
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