Getting Halfway to the College Moon?

During his first official address to Congress back this winter (remember, trivia folks, it was not a State of the Union), President Barack Obama made the bold promise that, by 2020, the United States would have the highest percentage of college degree holders in the world.  Recognizing that postsecondary education is quickly becoming a non-negotiable for success in today’s economy (let alone tomorrow’s), it is a promise we need to back up.  And Obama did so recognizing that to get there, we need to turn out millions upon millions of additional college graduates on top of current levels.

So how do we accomplish that?  Improving high school graduation rates, particularly with historically disadvantaged students is a good first-step gateway.  Dual enrollment programs, where we help today’s students see they are capable of doing college-level work helps.  Boosting the number of first-generation college-goers is another.  But how about actually getting those students who enroll in college to actually earn the diploma?  That seems like a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, according to a new report released this AM from the American Enterprise Institute, it seems that a student enrolled at an institution of higher education has only a slightly better chance of earning a degree than an individual who stops at campus for direction, a t-shirt, or a restroom break.  According to AEI’s new study, Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t), only 53 percent of college-goers have a diploma six years after starting the process.  Don’t forget, college is intended to be a four-year endeavor.  So even when we give today’s students two extra years, only half of enrollees manage to actually gain that intended sheepskin.
The numbers get even scarier when you drill down.  For those postsecondary institutions with the least selective admissions criteria — or those dubbed “noncompetitive” institutions — only 35 percent of students graduate within six years.  Even among “competitive” schools, those falling in the bottom 10 are only graduating 20 percent of their kids in six years.
Not surprisingly, the highest graduation rates lie with the most competitive schools.  Grad rates decline as we move down the scale, from highly competitive to very competitive to competitive to less competitive to noncompetitive.
The AEI report presents top “honors” to 10 schools, identified as noncompetitive that scored the lowest when it comes to six-year graduation rates.  Mountain State University in West Virginia (18%), Bellevue University in Nebraska (18%), Heritage University in Washington (17%), University of Houston in Texas (16%), National American University of South Dakota (15%), American InterContinental University in Georgia (13%), Miles College in Alabama (11%), Jarvis Christian College of Texas (10%), Carlos Albizu University of Florida (10%), and Southern University in Louisiana, with a whopping 8 percent.  These schools were all found to be noncompetitive, with the lowest grad rates — a destructive combination.
For those who think money buys success, eight of the 10 lowest-graduating schools are private institutions, with the University of Houston and Southern University being the only public schools to make “the list.”
But we don’t want to just pick on the noncompetitive schools.  In those schools dubbed most competitive, we see a similar trend.  EIght of the 10 schools with the lowest graduation rates are private schools (Webb Institute, Reed College, Tulane University, University of Miami, George Washington University, Scripps College, Case Western Reserve University, Connecticut College, Occidental College, and University of Rochester.  The two publics with the lowest rates are both service academies — the US Air Force Academy and West Point.  For those two, we’d like to think that the standards outside the classroom are the reason for the lower-than-average grad rate among peers, and you don’t have a high proportion of students at Army or Air Force on the seven- or eight-year BA plan.  So let’s give the Air Force Academy and West Point the benefit of the doubt here.
What’s even more disturbing though, particularly when we consider the challenge issued by President Obama and current efforts to close the achievement gap in this country, are graduation rates on the campuses of our competitive Historically Black Colleges and Historically Hispanic Colleges.  For competitive HBCUs (33 were studied) the six-year grad rate is only 36.5 percent.  For IHHEs (30 schools studied), the numbers were slightly better, 44.3 percent.  The only bright spot (if you can dare call it that) in the disaggregation is that HBCUs are relatively level when it comes to graduation rates, with less competitive schools graduating 34.7 percent of their students and noncompetitive schools graduating 37.1 percent of their students, meaning a student at an HBCU has a relatively equal chance of graduating, regardless of the institution’s competitiveness classification.  On the flip side, with noncompetitive IHHEs, only 19.8 percent of students are graduating in six years.
What does all this tell us?  First off, if our goal is to increase the number of college degree holders in the United States, we need to start with the customers we have.  Forget the need to push more students onto the college path.  We first need to address the 47 percent of current pathwalkers we are failing.  There are no excuses for one’s change of earning a college diploma once in college to being the same as winning a coin flip.  Access is clearly not an excuse, and money certainly shouldn’t be.  We need to do a better job of finding out why these enrollees are not graduating, and then act (either institutionally or nationally) to reverse the trend and prioritize degree attainment over college going once and for all.  Despite what some may say, the postsecondary experience is not nearly as important as the credential.  We owe it to every student who passes through a college’s doors to make sure they leave with a degree.
Second, we need to take a much closer look at how we are serving our historically disadvantaged student groups.  Institutions are to be applauded for making more opportunities available to students of color and providing programs and institutions themselves to better meet student needs and expectations.  But competitive HBCUs should do better than one in three graduating.  And competitive IHHEs need to better than two in five graduating.  This is particularly true when the average competitive IHE is turning out grads at nearly double that rate.
But if the numbers tell us anything, it is that the college graduation problem is one that is color blind and income oblivious.  The real problem here is competitiveness and return on investment.  After decades of convincing every family that their child should go to college, we’ve literally build a college or university for every student.  As a result, the correspondence schools and diploma mills of the past have given way to noncompetitive institutions with open admissions and a come one, come all mentality.  For too many of those schools, the tuition check is the end game, not the diploma.  An enrolled student is a steady stream of income.  There is no incentive to graduate students.  Schools aren’t being held accountable for their graduation rates.  Perhaps they should, but they aren’t.  And that shows in the AEI data.
When he took office nearly half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy made the promise we would send a man to the moon.  As we’ve often heard, this was an audacious goal designed to spur interest and investment in the space program in general.  Obama has don
e the same thing, albeit with less fanfare and public enthusiasm, with his promise to be tops in the world when it comes to college degree holders.  With Kennedy, we couldn’t just go halfway to the moon and back.  It was all or nothing.  
The same is true for Obama’s college pledge.  We have 11 years to get to the postsecondary moon.  Only this time, we aren’t starting from scratch.  First order of business is getting those students who are already in the system graduated.  Improving that 53 percent grad mark to 75 percent gets us far closer to our goal.  
But if we are going to have postsecondary impact for decades to come, we need to take a close look at the product we are selling.  Noncompetitive schools with no accountability and little ROI hurt us all in the long run.  There is no getting around it.  Yes, every student needs some form of postsecondary education to succeed in the 21st century economy.  After all of these years, who knew we needed to say that education needed to bring with it a modicum of quality.  For those who say the accreditation process is too difficult or onerous, this data should give them a great deal of pause.  If anything we need to be tougher on our IHEs and expect more.  Otherwise, we may simply be sliding into a game of rock-paper-scissors to see if we earn our diploma or not. 

253 thoughts on “Getting Halfway to the College Moon?

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