The Importance of Getting Students to Graduation- Part I

Part I: The Problem

As the graduation season of caps, gowns and commencement addresses is behind us, it is important to consider those who, for one reason or other, never made it to that all-important day. While we hear a lot about the number of enrollments, until just recently we have heard far less about graduation numbers. The importance of completion is critical if America is to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

The focus on four-year colleges and full-time students that has been prevalent for decades has failed to recognize significant changes in the education landscape. Not only have the demographics changed, but up until 2010 the government failed to count part-time, transfer, low income or remedial students. So, while many individuals returned to school following the economic meltdown that began in 2007, swelling enrollment numbers at community colleges and private and public institutions alike, the number of those graduating remains woefully low. In

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Currently, roughly 40% of students attending four-year traditional residential colleges and universities fail to graduate within six years.*

fact, while the number of students enrolled in undergraduate programs between 1970 and 2009 doubled, graduation rates remain virtually unchanged.

The numbers are even lower when you look at African American, Hispanics, and students over the age of 25, and those of the lower income ranges. A ground breaking study published by the National Governors Association in conjunction with Complete College America, a non-profit founded in 2009, examines this issue using data collected from 33 states covering more than 10 million students enrolled in public institutions. The findings suggest that while enrollment numbers are important, tracking completion - progress and outcome - are even more critical in defining the success of American higher education and ensuring the long term economic prosperity of generations to come. Getting students from convocation to graduation has never been more important.

“Time is the Enemy”

Time is the EnemyThis study, the first of its kind, entitled Time is the Enemy, openly laments the lack of data available at the Federal level. It declares first and foremost that non-traditional students - those students who are described as “juggling some combination of families, jobs, and school while commuting to class” - now make up 75% of all students. The study maintains that the historical data we do have indicates that “the big idea” is simply this - that the longer a student is in school, the less likely they are to graduate. Or, as the authors so eloquently put it “the longer it takes, the more life gets in the way of success.”

The notion that giving community college students an extra year to earn an associate degree, or a full-time student an extra two years to earn a bachelor’s is a bad thing, seems counterintuitive, but the numbers bear this out. Part-time students (4 of every 10 public college students attend school part-time) fail at alarming rate with only 7.8% earning an associate degree within 4 years and 24.3% earning bachelors within 8 years.

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Where does the time go?

The study indicates that students spend too much time earning excess credits, and that the overall time spent earning a certificate, associate or bachelor’s degree for both full and part-time students far exceeds the one, two and four-year proscribed timeframes. The bottom line is that even at the minimum of a single extra year for an associate’s degree and two extra years for a bachelor’s, graduation rates increase by only 4.9% in both instances.

Public Vs. Private

The value of a traditional four-year college degree continues to grow as illustrated in the pay gap between high school grads and college grads. But, as David J. Kirp points out in a New York Times article from January of this year entitled How to Help College Students Graduate, America’s dropout rates “are one of the worst among developed nations” with an estimated loss in earnings and taxes, “according to the American Institutes for Research, of 4.5 billion dollars.“

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Perhaps most troubling of all is the growing gap between the rich and poor. Financial inequality, as Paul Tough, puts bluntly in Who Gets to Graduate, an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times in May 2014, that looks at an aggressive program at the University of Texas at Austin designed to help low income and minority students succeed, “Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter (25%) of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelors degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.”

The uneven quality of a public education system strapped by state budget cuts makes it nearly impossible for state colleges, universities and community colleges to provide the kind of support needed to improve graduation rates. UT Austin is one of the few exceptions. Private schools with large endowments and high tuitions do have the resources. Their students, mostly white, upper middle class, able to attend school without the distractions of providing financial support for themselves or assisting their struggling families, have a decided advantage.

A Wake Up Call

The urgency of this situation cannot be emphasized enough. For non-traditional students, who now make up the majority, access to a four-year traditional higher education doesn’t ensure they will graduate. Yet it is still the four-year college education that is most able to deliver the best return on investment. Challenges along the way, both in school and at home threaten the success of those students lucky enough to have been accepted. The truth is that with over 1 trillion dollars in student debt, many American students don’t even have a diploma to show for the money they borrowed, let alone a job that will enable them to pay down that debt.

If nothing is done to address this issue, low graduation rates will, in the long term, result in not only continued high unemployment, but a dwindling talent pool for US companies looking to innovate and compete. Continued low graduation rates will decrease social mobility thus contributing to the growing wealth gap. And, America will continue to fall behind, countries such as Germany or South Korea who place a high cultural value on education. American public higher education is at a crossroads. In this commencement season, it should be remembered that graduation is not an end, rather, it is the best beginning we can give our young people.

[In Part II of this article we’ll take a closer look at some of the steps and programs that schools across the country are taking to improve their graduation rates.]

Links to articles cited: College Americate.html

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