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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Many Start, But Not So Many Finish: Is This Another Kind of Race to Nowhere?

"Race to Nowhere", a documentary about teens saturated with stress triggered by the high-stakes college admissions process, has garnered its fair share of attention in recent months.  What isn't getting nearly as much attention, though, is a race to nowhere of a different sort - namely, the college matriculation race many high school graduates start but never finish.  Four-year (and even five- and six-year) graduation rates at many colleges across the country are abysmal.  If only people knew.

About seventy percent of high school graduates nationwide move on to higher education (at EOS, it's close to 80%, with 60% going on to four-year schools).  Less than half complete a four-year degree.  Of course, college isn't for everyone, and this is certainly the case for some who go anyway.  But, is it worthwhile to attend even for a year or two?  And what are the consequences of extending the time frame for completion by one or two years?  Read on.

Let's first take a look at graduation rates on college campuses in Connecticut.
Here you go.  The first number is the 4-year rate, followed by the 5-year rate, 6-year rate, and retention rate after the first year.  So, for instance, if school U shows 47%/59%/66%/75%, it means that 47% of an entering class graduated in four years, 59% finished in five years, 66% completed degree requirements in six years, and 75% returned to school after the first year.  Got it?

Central CT State University (13%, 45%, 46%, 79%)
Connecticut College (83%, 87%, 88%, 90%)
Eastern CT State University (29%, 43%, 46%, 74%)
Fairfield University (75%, 78%, 79%, 90%)
Post University (25%, 28%, 29%, 62%)
Quinnipiac University (69%, 75%, 75%, 87%)
Sacred Heart University (56%, 61%, 62%, 81%)
St. Joseph's College (34%, 46%, 47%, 71%)
Southern CT State University (11%, 31%, 38%, 77%)
Trinity College (81%, 85%, 86%, 90%)
University of Bridgeport (28%, 37%, 41%, 49%)
University of CT (56%, 74%, 76%, 93%)
University of Hartford (49%, 58%, 60%, 75%)
University of New Haven (31%, 44%, 45%, 76%)
Wesleyan University (89%, 93%, 93%, 95%)
Western CT State University (14%, 33%, 41%, 76%)
Yale University (90%, 95%, 97%, 99%)

Notice any trends?  Wonder if there's any relationship between college readiness and graduation rates? Between SAT scores and graduation rates?  Between ability to pay and graduation rates?  Between anything else?

 William Bowen (an economist and former Princeton president) and Michael McPherson (an economist and former Macalester College president) recently authored a book entitled "Crossing the Finish Line" in which they discuss the findings of college graduation rates based on the records of about 200,000 students at 68 colleges.  Below you'll see some of what they reported;
  • some students are inadequately prepared for higher education, but many high school graduates are sufficiently prepared and still not succeeding because...
  • many students "under match", meaning that they choose schools that are not necessarily the best ones they can get into, instead opting for one that is less expensive or closer to home.  This is particularly the case for students in low-income families.  They tend to matriculate to schools with lower graduation rates and, thus, enter a culture in which graduation isn't necessarily a high expectation.  Conversely, the authors say, students who are "well-off" attend the colleges with the best graduation rates.  And they graduate.  This, they say, perpetuates the income divide.
  • colleges are part of the problem and they need to do a better job of graduating students and doing so in four years.  Otherwise, "graduation delayed often means graduation denied."  (High schools get hammered for dropout rates that are much, much lower than many colleges listed above.  How are colleges able to escape this attention?)
Higher education remains a wise investment, even though the price has considerably outpaced inflation over the past three decades, with tuition now resembling the housing bubble that recently burst and consequently deflated sale prices.  More and more families are being priced out of the market, especially at private schools.  Still, the US Labor Department recently reported that workers with bachelor's degrees earn on average 54% more than those who attend college but don't finish.  That's a lot of money left on the table over the course of a lifetime.  And, in the final analysis, how much less expensive is it really to attend a lower priced school when it may take longer than four years to cross the finish line (think about lost income during the extra years in school)?

How can we help students finish what they started?  One way, no doubt, is by helping them become better prepared, although - as already noted - many are (for those who aren't, this will become an even more serious issue as colleges deny enrollment on the "Ability to Benefit" clause).  Another way is to provide a jumpstart with college credits earned while enrolled in high school.  Both ways are well within our grasp.  How do we get students to grab hold of them?  Doing neither leaves them with little to hold on to once they move into life after high school.

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