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Two Years After Obama’s College Graduation Initiative, Major Obstacles Remain

WARREN, Mich. — Estranged from his family at 17, Jake Boyd put himself through Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit by working nearly 100 hours a week: 12 hours a day, six days a week, at a car wash, followed by four-hour shifts as a security guard at an apartment complex.

Homeless for a while, Boyd had to skip a semester when he ran out of money for tuition. It took him almost five years to earn his associate degree in law enforcement from Macomb, the campus where President Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative in 2009, setting a goal of restoring the country to first place by 2020 in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees.

Despite the hurdles in his way, Boyd has resisted the urge to quit on his goal of going on to get a bachelor’s degree this fall, “if I can squeeze some more pennies together,” and ultimately joining the Peace Corps.

Most students like him, however, do give up.

Only one in five of those who enroll in community colleges—and, in some states, barely one in 10—graduates in three years, while only about half of students who go to universities get their bachelor’s degrees within six. That has helped to push the United States from first to 10th in the world in the proportion of the population that has graduated from college, threatening to make this generation of college-age Americans the first to be less well-educated than their parents.

It’s a trend that Obama, in a speech on this campus two years ago this week, promised to reverse. The president’s goal made community colleges—which enroll 43 percent of American students—a linchpin of this strategy, calling on them to increase their graduation rates by 50 percent, or five million more degree-holders, in under a decade.

Yet conversations with dozens of experts and reviews of available data show that obstacles on the road to graduation only have gotten greater in the two years since then. Few believe the 2020 target will be met.

“The outlook is not good,” says Dr. Michael Lovenheim, an assistant professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and co-author of an influential study that found students are taking more, not less, time to graduate.

The study by Lovenheim and his colleagues belied the common contention by universities that graduation rates are falling because students are arriving unprepared. American high school graduates are, in fact, better prepared than ever, it found, but most go to unselective community colleges and public universities where budgets and services have been deeply cut, classes are large, and per-student expenditures are low.

Many of these students, like Boyd, have to work to pay quickly rising tuition and other costs, making it harder to get through school. Boyd sleeps three hours a night—four, if he’s lucky. “After five years, you get used to it,” he says.

The researchers also found that the longer it takes students to finish their degrees, the more likely they’ll drop out. And a new study by the same team, scheduled to be published next year, Lovenheim says, will show that finishing college is now taking even longer.

Several of the things that have historically conspired to push down graduation rates have gotten worse in the two years since the president announced his goal.

First, $12 billion he promised to community colleges at the time ended up siphoned off to help get the contentious health care bill passed. As a compromise, $2 billion was pledged to community colleges for career training through a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. It took until January of this year for the first $500 million to be made available—it won’t actually be handed out until the end of September—and the rest is in the sights of congressional budget-cutters.

“The money didn’t happen,” says Jim Jacobs, who, as president of Macomb, welcomed Obama to the stage for his announcement on July 14, 2009. “He gave a great speech and the program has now been reduced from $12 billion to $2 billion in $500 million chunks.”

Justin Hamilton, spokesman for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, says the administration is making progress toward the 2020 goal—every governor, for example, has been challenged to convene a college-completion summit—but he acknowledged, “We’ve got a tremendous amount of work ahead of us.”

States have slashed billions of dollars from public higher education, and $5.3 billion in federal stimulus funds they got to prevent even deeper cuts has, or will soon, run out.

The proportion of their budgets that states earmark for higher education fell from 11.4 percent when Obama called for higher graduation rates to 10 percent last year, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has said the president’s 2020 graduation goal will not be reached unless resources are “significantly increased.”

Cuts in some states have been even more severe. California has slashed $2 billion from its public universities and $695 million from community colleges, the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL, reports. Arizona sliced $198 million from state universities and $73 million from community colleges. Texas cut $439 million this year from public higher education and has authorized reductions of as much as $800 million more over the next two years. At Macomb, the budget is down 25 percent in the last five years, including a 4.3 percent cut this year.

“There isn’t enough support for higher education, and there aren’t enough real resources for us to do the job” of raising graduation rates, says Jacobs. “There’s no question about that.” Adds Dr. Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the AACC: “We’re looking at more mission, more work to do, and fewer dollars, and that’s not a good recipe long term.”

Those state budget cuts have translated into higher tuition and fees for students—two straight years of 15 percent increases in Florida, a 14 percent tuition hike in Washington State, and 20 percent in the University of California and California State University systems. Tuition at Macomb rose 11 percent last year and will be up another 5 percent this year.

In-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions nationwide rose 7.9 percent in the academic year just ended, according to the College Board—far higher than the inflation rate of 1.1 percent—to $7,605. Community colleges increased their tuition 6 percent to $2,713, and private, nonprofit four-year colleges and universities by 4.5 percent, to $27,293. And this at a time when family income has remained relatively flat.

States also have cut spending on the financial aid that many students need to pay these rising costs. Michigan reduced financial aid by 61 percent, and Illinois by $255 million, and New York reduced funding for both higher education and tuition assistance by $224 million, the NCSL reports. Now, like that career-training money, federal Pell Grants are a target of budget-cutters in Congress. The House already has voted to reduce the maximum award available from the principal federal financial aid program by 45 percent, to $3,040 a year.

One consequence of having less financial aid available is that nearly two-thirds of community college students now work at least 20 hours a week to pay for school, the New York City-based nonpartisan think tank Demos found—a factor linked to increased chances of dropping out.

“It’s ironic that as soon as students take us up on the offer of aspiring to higher education, we tell them, ‘Sorry, we’ve run out of money,’” says José Cruz, vice president of higher education practice and policy at the Education Trust.

“Tuition’s going up and financial aid in some states is being restrained, and classes are becoming overcrowded and hard to get, so the challenges are still there,” says Stan Jones, former Indiana commissioner of higher education and founder and president of Complete College America, which is pushing for improved graduation rates.

Key congressional Republicans, however, deride the president for putting so much attention on graduating more students at a time of nagging unemployment.

“A college degree doesn’t do any good if there aren’t any jobs,” says Rep. Virginia Foxx , R-N.C., who heads the House higher-education subcommittee and who has questioned Obama’s graduation goals.

“I think it’s important that people finish college, if at all possible,” Foxx says. “But the major reason people go to college is to get a job. And I think the president should be focusing a whole lot more on creating an environment that allows for job creation.”

Many students, Foxx says, go to school to get career skills, and don’t care about degrees. “The president has created a solution in search of a problem,” she says.

As for cutting Pell Grants, Foxx says, “If you’re going to make cuts in federal spending, you have to go where the money is.” And Pell Grants, which took 35 years to reach a cost of $15 billion annually, have grown to double that in just the last four.

That’s in part because enrollment continues to increase, despite rising tuition and fees, as students opt for college instead of trying their luck in the sagging labor market. A record 17.7 million students are enrolled in American colleges and universities, 35 percent more than in 2000, and 19.6 million are projected to be in school by 2020. The number of full-time students at cash-strapped community colleges is up more than 24 percent since 2007, the AACC says. And the crowding means that fewer can get into the courses required to complete their degrees on time—or ever.

“The biggest problem with achieving the very ambitious goal the president set is that we have not backed up that goal with the resources necessary to accomplish it,” says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. “What we’re trying to do in higher education is increase the number of students enrolling while simultaneously spending less money on it. And if that’s the way you’re going about it, the likelihood of success is very, very low.”

Twenty percent of community college students had trouble getting into at least one course they needed last fall, according to a survey by the Pearson Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the international media company. About 5 percent dropped out during the first few weeks of the semester, and 10 percent seriously thought about it. Students working full time were among those most likely to have dropped out or considered it, and 20 percent said they couldn’t get the help they needed.

 “The difficult part for me was getting the courses I needed, and if you don’t get those courses, it sets you back six months or a year in some cases,” says Matt Dolengowski, a Macomb student who needed one last course, in Spanish—he had hoped to take it this summer, but it was canceled—before he transfers to Wayne State University for a bachelor’s degree.

“Sometimes you want to quit,” says Dolengowski, who plans to become a police officer, and who also works full time while in school. “But then you look at the cost-benefit analysis, that if I drop out right now I’m going to make this much less money or coming back to college is going to be this much more hard.”

Higher-education officials say Obama’s graduation speech at least has focused attention on the obstacles to graduation. Governors and legislators in Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and other states have followed suit by changing the way they dole out money to colleges and universities, allocating money based not simply on how many students they enroll—the traditional practice—but on how many end up with degrees.

“We’ve been paying colleges to enroll people, not to graduate people,” says Louis Soares, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Universities and colleges, he says, “get paid without any consequence when they don’t deliver.”

State universities and community colleges “are rewarded based on their student count on a certain day in the first semester,” says Carol Lincoln, senior vice president of Achieving the Dream, which has been working to improve community college graduation rates. “What we should be looking at is how many students were still in those seats the week before the course was over. We need to put the incentive on the end-game rather than the enrollment game.”

Nicolette Ivezaj, whose parents emigrated from Montenegro, was the first in her family to get a degree when she graduated from Macomb this year. She’s been accepted to go on and get her bachelor’s degree at Michigan State this fall, but may not be able to afford it—even though her father, a tunnel engineer, is living in New York, away from his family, to make more money than he could around Detroit.

“We’re still living paycheck to paycheck,” says Ivezaj, who hopes to become a nurse. Yet if she doesn’t pay her deposit soon, she’ll lose her place.

“It’s driving me crazy,” Ivezaj says. “I’ve really hit a wall. I don’t think people realize how hard it is.”

“It’s a great irony,” says Thomas Brock, director of policy for postsecondary education at MDRC, a social policy research organization based in New York City. “If you look at the most elite colleges and universities, they coddle students from the beginning to the end, with counseling and all kinds of supports on campus, and they’re working with the most capable students. If you flip that around, the colleges that are working with the students who need the most really provide the least.”

With budget cuts continuing, says Lovenheim, those same schools “are becoming even more lower-resourced. So the ability of these students to make it through is going to be increasingly stressed. First, there will be an increase in the time it takes students to complete, and then a decline in completion rates. The disappointing part is that to get through these days, you have to be that sort of heroic individual” like Jake Boyd.

“All of these forces are conspiring against the students who have been traditionally underserved,” Cruz says. “Many kids say, ‘Well, I believe in myself,’ but when you get sick, or you can’t find the courses you need, at some point you have to come to the decision of whether to go on or not.”

“We can’t meet the country’s collective goal and place all the burden on the individuals,” he says. “You can’t expect to have hundreds of thousands of heroes come along and save the day.”

Samantha Raad, another student at Macomb, laughs when asked how much longer it will take her to get her associate degree in social work. She’s already attended the college for three years.

“I’ve just been basically going for what I’ve been able to pay for,” says Raad, 22, who works with developmentally disabled adults and who hopes to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “That makes it take a lot longer than I planned. Plus, the wait-lists for classes are insane sometimes.”

She says, “I’ve thought about, what if I just dropped out for a while and just worked. But I don’t think I’d end up going back, and I would really regret that. I would have lost the motivation.”

Still, Raad says wearily, “It’s a lot. I feel like it should be a lot easier than this.”

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