Higher education institutions must answer the call to see more students through to graduation.
On Feb. 24, 2009, President Barack Obama stood before a joint session of Congress and declared that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” It was a bold promise, a sign that the new president intends to make higher education a foundation stone in his domestic agenda. Soon after, he announced a once-ina- generation plan to overhaul the student loan system and make Pell Grants an entitlement. These reforms will help more undergraduates — especially those from lower-income families — afford the higher education they need.
But the reforms will not be enough. Getting students in the front door of college is only the first step — we also have to help them reach the graduation stage. And, while the president recognized this in his call for a new $2.5 billion college completion fund, this represents only a small fraction of the national investment in higher education. Most public funding for colleges and universities comes from state governments. States also control the levers of higher education governance and regulatory power. To regain the United States’ international lead in college attainment, states must do a better job of using these tools to hold higher education institutions accountable for results.
The good news is that a great deal of new information is available to accurately measure institutional success. The federal government collects and publishes graduation rates for nearly every college in the United States. Since 2005, the data have been broken down by students’ gender and race/ethnicity. The numbers reveal large disparities at many campuses, with Black graduation rates often 10 percentage points below those of White students, or more. Nearly half of all institutions graduate fewer than 40 percent of Black students within six years. Hispanic graduation rates are much the same.
Some states have gone even further, extending the graduation rate timeline to eight years or longer and tracking students who transfer from one institution to another. Other states compare graduation rates at individual institutions to those at similar “peer” institutions, so that outcomes are considered in the context of each college’s distinct mission and student body.
The bad news is that most states aren’t using this information to effectively hold institutions to account. There are exceptions, of course — in New Jersey, we know that Rutgers beat its peer average in graduating Black students but trailed for American Indians, Hispanics and Whites. Black graduation rates at Rowan University are more than 25 percentage points below those for White students. At Richard Stockton College, by contrast, Black students had a higher graduation rate than White students. But the majority of states fail to publish this kind of data, even though it is freely available.
And even among states that gather information about graduation rates, many do not use it to create strong incentives for institutions to improve. Funding, for example, is still almost exclusively based on enrollment. As long as enough students start at the beginning of the semester, it doesn’t matter if many or most drop out during the year. Colleges claim to meet diversity goals based on how many minority students they admit — not how many actually earn degrees.
Governance is a similar situation. When was the last time a college president lost his or her job because of low graduation rates for students of color?
Some might argue that a single-minded focus on graduation will tempt institutions to lower academic standards. But that’s why accountability should be multidimensional, gathering information about learning, engagement, scholarship and a whole range of outcomes tied to each institution’s unique mission. States should start by publishing the graduation data they have in a consumer-friendly format. Every high school guidance counselor should know which institutions are most (and least) successful in helping students earn degrees and advise students choosing colleges accordingly.
States should also reserve a portion of funding for colleges that do the best job of improving overall graduation rates and closing graduation rate gaps, taking into account the economic and academic background of each college’s students.
And when college leaders report back to governing boards and state legislators, minority college graduation rates should be high on the agenda.
President Obama’s higher education goal is achievable and vital for the nation’s longterm economic prosperity. But to reach it, the nation’s colleges and universities will need to do a much better job of educating our increasingly diverse students. And state policymakers will need to lead the way.
— Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector in Washington, D.C. Lawmakers in Ohio, among other states, are considering basing state funding on students’ course or degree completion. How will such a change affect historically Black institutions that serve a disproportionate share of underprepared students? Visit DiverseEducation .com/StateFunding for more information.
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