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College Enrollment Increases In States That Legalize Marijuana Without Hurting Graduation Rates, Study Finds



A newly published study of college enrollment data found that states’ adoption of recreational marijuana legalization (RML) “increases enrollments by approximately up to 9%, without compromising degree completion or graduation rate.” Increases in out-of-state enrollments further suggest the policy shift “boosts college competitiveness by offering a positive amenity,” the report says, with “no evidence that RML affects college prices, quality, or in-state enrollment.”

The findings by University of Oklahoma graduate student Ahmed El Fatmaoui were published last month in the journal Economic Inquiry. They build on past research, such as a 2022 study that found that schools in states that legalized marijuana saw larger application pools, with no apparent decline in the quality of student applicants.

As in the earlier study, El Fatmaoui used data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which come from surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. He supplemented that in the new research with county-level data “to construct a panel dataset of colleges and their characteristics from 2009 to 2019.”

The main results of statistical significance, the latest study says, “indicate that RML increases enrollment by 4.6%–9%.” Increases in enrollment rates were seen in both men and women and, notably, took place after a delay following legalization.

“The results indicate that both women’s and men’s enrollments rose significantly after the fourth year of the first dispensary opening,” the report says, noting that the delay could be due to a number of factors. Among them may be “the slow and gradual development of a marijuana consumption culture,” the time it takes for students to decide on and apply to college as well as the sometimes sluggish rollout of marijuana retail markets.

Another possible explanation El Fatmaoui acknowledges is that “states may use the additional tax revenue from marijuana sales to subsidize their higher education sector,” which itself could draw higher enrollment.

As for student performance, the study looked specifically at Washington and Colorado, which it explains “are the only states that have legalized RM for a sufficiently long period.” Findings were generally positive.

“RML exhibits a notable positive impact on graduation rates, contributing to increases of up to 2.7% points for bachelor’s degrees and 5.6% points for associate degrees,” the report says.

“The graduation rate for associate degrees shows a significant effect from the fourth lead, indicating a delayed response to the policy as discussed in the main result section,” it continues. “On the other hand, the graduation rate for bachelor degrees shows a significant effect from the second lead, which may reflect increasing student transfers. Taken together, RML does not seem to be detrimental to the overall performance of students (i.e., degree completion on time and graduation rates).”

The findings complicate the conclusions of a 2017 study that indicated “RML leads to diminished grades, particularly in courses requiring numerical skills.” the report says.

“My analysis reveals that RML does not undermine overall student success,” El Fatmaoui wrote. “My results [point] to an uptick in college graduations associated with the increase in enrollments due to RML.”

Nevertheless, the new study “does not negate” the past findings, the researcher added: “Due to the lack of Grade Point Average (GPA) data in the IPEDS dataset, I cannot assess the impact of RML on overall student scores or GPA.”

Results of the analysis also “suggest that distance traveled from the affected states is important and support the hypothesis that improvement in first-time enrollment is driven by the gain of competitive advantage relative to neighboring states,” the study says. The uptick on enrollment “is not a net gain,” it adds, “but rather a redistribution of students across states.”

Notably, the policy change also appeared to have “no impact on selective colleges, possibly because of their limited capacity or their students’ preference for college quality and expected future earnings over college amenities.”

Consistent with past research, the results also indicated that states where marijuana was legalized earlier saw a sharper rise in enrollments, which the study says predicts “null effects for future adopters.” On the other hand, it notes, “As more states legalize marijuana for recreational use and more post-policy data becomes available, future research can explore the long-term consequences of the policy on college enrollment.”

“Although my findings indicate that RML has no significant effect on overall academic performance (degree completion), it also raises intriguing questions about its impact on other aspects of student behaviors,” El Fatmaoui wrote. “Additional research is needed to investigate how this policy affects students’ choice of majors.”

The author said in a press release about the new research that future studies should focus on how legalization “impacts peer dynamics and selection of academic disciplines, with a special emphasis on differentiating between STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] and non-STEM fields.”

The new analysis found slightly lower comparative impacts than the 2022 study, which found that the enactment of adult-use legalization was associated with a nearly 15 percent increase in the size of schools’ applicant pools.

That study also found effects were most pronounced in early adopter states such as Colorado and Washington State. Colorado, for instance, experienced a nearly 30 percent post-legalization increase in applicants at larger universities

A separate study of college students earlier in 2022 challenged the stereotype that cannabis consumers lack motivation, with researchers finding that students who used cannabis exhibited more motivation compared to a control group of non-users.

Marijuana Use Linked To Increase In Light Physical Activity, Study Challenging ‘Lazy Stoner’ Stereotype Finds

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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