This July, President Barack Obama called for America to “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020. At the Education Sector’s forum on “what the Obama administration’s new focus on higher education means for the future of American colleges and universities,” at George Washington University (GWU), a university official reacted with surprisingly candid skepticism over whether this would occur.
Panelist and Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc noted that he thought the “bigger impediment” to increasing the number of college graduates “is that higher ed—if I can make a big broad generalization—doesn’t align very much with this concern.” He said that “most of higher ed has cared more about building great buildings,” food courts and climbing walls, or, in the case of Boston University, a multi-million dollar high-rise dorm.
Faculty have other priorities, too, he argued. “Faculty, I think, don’t much care about this question and I mean, I think on some level of their conscience they might if you ask them outside of their work…but, in fact, I think most care more about some of their teaching and often scholarship, research and their discipline,” said LeBlanc.
Nevertheless, the education lobby insists that money is the salve that will fix the system. “The cost of higher education isn’t just a barrier to entry, it’s a barrier to graduating,” said Kevin Carey, referring to data in the new book Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities. He called for “more diverse options for students to get through to a credential than we have now.”
In Crossing the Finish Line, William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson demonstrate how rising tuition costs form an inverse relationship with college accessibility and student retention.
“Our estimates imply that an increase in annual net price of $1,000 is associated with a decline of 3 percentage points in the six-year graduation rate and a decline of 4.5 percentage points in the four-year graduation rate for students in the lowest-income group,” they write.
“As we have noted, the differences are smaller in magnitude but the same in direction for the second income quartile,” write Bowen et al.
Robert Shireman, Deputy Undersecretary of education, referring to the book, said that “In terms of what needs to change in order to reach [this goal], we [need] all institutions of higher education—broadly defined, including workforce development programs—to shift their thinking from one that focuses on getting students enrolled to one that focuses on helping students complete and that will help bring about one of the things from the book that was released yesterday.”
“It was very clear that with some relatively few percentage-point increases in completion rates, we could dramatically increase the number of people who are actually getting degrees,” Shireman said, adding that “relatively small—but bigger would be better—improvements in our remediation rates” could “dramatically increase the number of people who are going on to credit their involvement in higher education and potentially earning degrees…”
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found in its analysis of Fall 2000 national enrollment data (the most recent available) that 42% of freshman at two-year colleges had enrolled in remedial courses, as compared with “12 to 24 percent of freshmen at other types of institutions[.]”
The U.S. government now includes college graduation, transfer and retention rates when applying for federal aid online, said Shireman, noting that he had received complaints from schools because students opted not to enroll after seeing these numbers. “Well, they have information and they’re making choices based on more information. Is there—What’s the problem?” he asked.
A technologically savvy solution to expensive remedial courses could be subscription-based online remediation utilizing the “call-center staffing model,” argued SMARTTHINKING founder Burck Smith in the September American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Education Outlook.
Carey raised questions about a $99/month tuition model and pointed to the dearth of information as one reason why parents stick with traditional institutions. “That, in and of itself, that lack of information is a huge barrier to innovation in higher education because people, if they’re uncertain then they’re going to stick with the traditional ways of doing things,” he said. People will “pay more to go to a traditional institution because that credential won’t be questioned in the job market,” Carey argued.
“Now one, if you have a degree from GW, for example, you are free and clear for the rest of your life. No one is going to look and say, ‘Who is that and is that legitimate and did you really get an education?’”
According to AEI’s Diplomas and Dropouts, American colleges and universities vary widely in their capacity to graduate students. For example, among the measured “nonselective” schools, which “generally require only evidence of graduation from an accredited high school,” median graduation rates varied from 14% for the “bottom ten [graduating] schools” to 58% among the “top ten schools” listed in the study.
In contrast, authors Frederick M. Hess, Mark Schneider, Kevin Carey, and Andrew P. Kelley (Hess et al.) find that the median graduation rate among the lowest-performing (in terms of academic completion) “most competitive” universities is a stellar 79%, with the top ten “most competitive” graduating, on average, 95% of their students.
Clearly, increasing graduation rates—incrementally, or not—is much more difficult than the panelists might like to admit.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.