Digest No. 04 - June 2018

Taking Too Many Difficult Courses at Once Threatens Graduation Rates

Witteveen, D., and P. Attewell. 2017. “The College Completion Puzzle: A Hidden Markov Model Approach.” Research in Higher Education 58: 449–467.


How does course-taking influence degree attainment and graduation rates? This longitudinal study was designed to address the course-taking patterns among undergraduates and their influence on a host of outcomes, mostly related to whether students graduated or not. The goal of the research was to demonstrate the efficacy of analyzing transcript data as a means of predicting graduation trajectories and how this technique may be more accurate when compared with similar and more traditional techniques that model graduation rates as a function of socioeconomic, demographic, and pre-college background information.

Authors Dirk Wittevenn and Paul Attewell provide an overview of what they call the “college completion puzzle.” Comparing U.S. baccalaureate graduation rates with those in other OECD countries, including Sweden, France, Iceland, Norway, and the Netherlands, they rightfully argue that U.S college dropout rates are higher than many policy makers and institutional stakeholders would like. They cite Aud et al. (2013) and Radford et al. (2011) when suggesting that about 63 percent of students who matriculate into a four-year degree program actually complete their bachelor’s degree within six years.

Turning specifically to the literature base, the authors provide an efficient review of the relevant work in this area. They discuss the academic and nonacademic factors that have been modeled to predict graduation rates and pieces that examine them as a function of institutional covariates. Drawing from Bowen et al. (2009), the authors note “leading scholars argue that students should try to attend the most selective college possible, since this will enhance their chances of graduating” (p. 451).

To answer their research question, the authors used the Beginning Postsecondary Longitudinal Study (BPS) data from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES). A nationally representative sample of first-time, first-year students who entered college in 2004 was followed over six years. Student transcript data were merged with these data to create the “2004/2009 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study Restricted-Use Transcript Data Files” or PETS data (NCES, 2011). The final dataset examined 8,980 students enrolled in a four-year college for the first time in 2004.


How do students who graduate within six years differ from those who don’t? In short, graduating students tend to balance difficult courses (e.g., math or science) and less intense courses when constructing their schedules. When students were required to take difficult courses, those who subsequently graduated rarely took them in combination with a larger number of credit hours. In other words, graduating students took fewer courses alongside more challenging courses.

Importantly, non-completers and completers began taking courses with similar schedules and strategies, often enrolling in a similar number of credit-bearing courses including challenging ones. As they progressed through college, non-completers were significantly less likely to adopt “winning strategies” (p. 463) than completers. Indeed, scheduling courses and credit load based on known course difficulty appears to be an effective way to increase graduation rates, at least for this cohort of students.


For CIC presidents and other academic leaders, these results are critical for understanding the ebbs and flows of student enrollment behavior and its effects on degree completion. To improve graduation rates, leaders should be asking the following questions: Are academic schedules flexible enough to accommodate some of the course-taking strategies identified by these authors as furthering graduation chances? What happens to financial aid packages if students want to take a challenging math course and fewer other courses at the same time? How do advisors and coaches help students navigate challenging courses within their schedules? How do institutions provide first-generation students with the navigational capital needed to understand how course-taking behavior may affect their likelihood of graduating and their eventual time to degree?

These questions are important as CIC members try to improve graduation rates for all students. Given core requirements that focus on challenging courses––mostly math and science––as part of general education curricula, educators need to be reminded that course content is not the only academic challenge students face when going through college. How students balance and sequence courses, especially those that are challenging, remains equally important.

About the Authors

Dirk Witteveen is a PhD candidate in sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY).

Paul Attewell is distinguished professor of sociology and professor of urban education at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Aud, S., S. Wikinson-Flicker, P. Kristapovich, A. Rathbun, X. Wang, and J. Zhang. 2013. The Condition of Education 2013. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2013-037. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, NCES.

Bowen, W. G., M. M. Chingos, and M. S. McPherson. (2009). Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2011. 2004/2009 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study Restricted Use Data File [in Stata]. NCES 2011-244. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, NCES.

Radford, A. W., L. Berkner, S. C. Wheeless, and B. Shepard. 2010. Persistence and Attainment of 2003–2004 Beginning Postsecondary Students: After Six Years. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2011-151. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.