International Study Suggests Tuition, Financial Aid Have Little Impact on Completion Rates

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Many countries struggle to graduate more than half of their undergraduate students, with the U.S. falling close to the average international completion rate, according to new data presented by researchers from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) Wednesday.

Using data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) 2019 Education at a Glance report, AIR principal researcher Rachel Dinkes — alongside AIR researcher Audrey Peek  — found that low completion rates across the board appear unaffected by how much countries charge in tuition and fees and how much they offer in financial aid. To analyze graduation rates, the OECD data assumed that each country's typical graduation time for a bachelor's degree, or what they referred to as the “theoretical duration” of each country's programs, was about three to four years.

“What I was most excited to see was how similar the United States was to other countries,” Dinkes said during a webinar on her findings. “I was surprised that all countries have this problem of students who enter and are not finishing.” 

Dinkes and Peek found the average international completion rate for full-time students using data from academic year 2016-17 was 39% — with the U.S. falling at 38.5%. The completion rates ranged from about 72% in the United Kingdom to about 17% in Chile. 

“College completion is something many countries struggle with, particularly when it comes to supporting students who are new to the higher education system,” Peek said during the webinar.  

The researchers reported that those figures rose significantly two to three years after the theoretical duration of each country’s programs — closer to the timeframe the U.S. federal government uses to measure completion — yet the difference between country’s completion rates narrowed. For example, the average completion rate grew to 67% — with the U.S. falling at 69% — while rates across countries only varied from about 85% in the United Kingdom to 51% in Brazil.

Dinkes and Peek also found the U.S. dropout rate after the theoretical duration of each country’s programs fell close to the international average, (19% compared to the average of 20%). Other students included in the data set may have still been enrolled in higher education or have transferred to another type of degree program, Dinkes explained.  

The researchers also looked at tuition and fees across 26 countries, and found that one-third had no tuition and fees, one-third had moderate tuition and fees, and the remaining third — including the U.S. — had high tuition and fees. The average sticker price in the U.S. for academic year 2017-18 was just under $9,000, coming only second on the list to the United Kingdom at $12,000.  

Peek added that the research showed that countries generally have one of four financial models: no tuition, high aid; high tuition, high aid; high tuition, moderate aid; and low/moderate tuition, low/moderate aid. However, she said, the different models did not have a significant impact on completion rates across countries. For example, while the U.S. fell into the high tuition, high aid model with a completion rate of 38.5%, Sweden’s rate was only slightly higher at 42% despite charging no tuition and offering high aid. 

“There’s no clear relationship between completion rates and these groupings,” Peek explained. “There are many reasons students don’t complete college. … The finances are definitely a key component of non-completion ... but only a part of it. Completion and financial aid may be related, but it’s complicated.”

Dinkes also cautioned that the data analyzed may not tell the full story because it focuses on the sticker price of higher education across countries, and not the net price — or what students actually pay after aid is applied. 

“What students pay might [paint] more of a better picture,” she said, adding that she is hoping to access such data across countries in the future.


Publication Date: 1/30/2020

Barrington M | 1/30/2020 2:25:12 PM

If tuition/charges are not the problem, then it must be related to their socioeconomic backgrounds, which in turn affects the quality of the High School preparation that they are receiving. Obviously, without being patronizing, there are other factors as well, but the bulk of it has to be the quality of their High School preparation.

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