Changing the Focus to College Graduation

Back to March 2013 Ed Reporter

Changing the Focus to College Graduation

More students than ever are attending college, but too many are starting college and never graduating with a degree. In 2011 President Obama asked for a study of “unsatisfactory and stagnating completion rates at colleges.” This requested report was released in January 2013 and titled: “An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: College Completion Must Be Our Priority.” Some aspects of this letter may sound an alarm among parents, students, and taxpayers.

The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment (NCHEA), a group of leaders of U.S. community colleges and private and public colleges and universities, in the Open Letter suggests that “every institution must pay as much attention to the number of degrees it grants – completion – as it does to success in administration and recruitment.” NCHEA suggests that universities make a college official responsible for overseeing graduation rates. That indicates this is not already being done, and apparently it is not.

E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University and NCHEA chair, said, “We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate. I’m going to call this person the completion dean.” (New York Times, 01-24-2013)

According to the NCHEA, at public, four-year institutions the graduation rate is 54%. The rate increases to 63% when students who transfer out and eventually graduate from another institution are included. At private, nonprofit four-year institutions, the comparable numbers are 63% and 73%.

Outstanding student college indebtedness in 2012 exceeded $1 trillion. Student loan default rates are at an all-time high. Many of the students who never graduate from college still have loans to repay. The executive branch’s 2010 streamlining of the college loan process leaves the federal government owed. Read that as taxpayer. 93% of 2011 student loans were made by the federal government. (Wall Street Journal, 11-28-12)

The NCHEA Open Letter says, “efforts to improve retention and completion must not come at the expense of access. After all, the easiest way to boost graduation rates would be to accept only those students with high academic qualifications.” Data compiled about students’ remedial education needs in order to do college level work suggests many admitted students are not qualified. According to The Hechinger Report, “Nationwide, about 50 percent of undergraduates and as many as 70 percent of those entering community colleges are placed in remedial courses.” (01-28-13)

Other important NCHEA suggestions are: identifying and assisting students in academic jeopardy, support services for nontraditional students, such as veterans, and ensuring “that faculty have the appropriate pedagogical knowledge to communicate effectively with the students they teach.”

Suggestions not made by the NCHEA, but also perhaps useful are: schools should admit fewer students, focusing on those who are qualified to do college level work and prospective students should be given precise data about graduation rates from each college to which they apply. Full disclosure of the binding nature of student loans and their implications for students who drop out should be stressed. Additionally, once admitted, schools should be required to supply data on job prospects in a student’s chosen field of study, so they know if they will be employable and able to pay off their loans.