Stark admissions 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.
Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.
Strikingly, the students who initially enrolled in a four-year college were also about as likely to have earned a two-year degree as the other group was. That is, those who started on the more ambitious track were able to downshift, but most of those who started in community colleges struggled to make the leap to four-year colleges. That finding is consistent with other research showing that students do better when they stretch themselves and attend the most selective college that admits them, rather than “undermatching.”
Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average, according to the Florida study, which was done by Seth D. Zimmerman, a Princeton economist who will soon move to the University of Chicago. “If you give these students a shot, they’re ready to succeed,” said Mr. Zimmerman, adding that he was surprised by the strength of the findings.
But book learning isn’t anywhere near the full story of Mr. Escanilla’s growing up. His path also highlights another benefit that college can bring: Its graduates have managed to complete adulthood’s first major obstacle course. Doing so helps them learn how to finish other obstacle courses and gives them the confidence that they can, so long as they stay focused. Learning to navigate college fosters a quality that social scientists have taken to calling grit.