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Focus on Getting Students Into College Shifts to Getting Them Out


For decades, getting more students into college has been the top priority of America’s higher education leaders. But what’s the point, a growing number of experts are wondering, when so few who go to school finish a degree?

Just 54 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 had a degree six years later — and even fewer Hispanics and blacks did, according to some of the latest government figures. After borrowing for school but failing to graduate, many of those students may be worse off than if they had never attended college at all.

Now the question of what to do about the country’s unimpressive and stagnate graduation rates is on the agenda, from college presidents’ offices to state houses. The latest sign of the trend comes this week, when former Princeton President William Bowen lays out an ambitious research agenda on the question during a speech in New York.

Normally, a scholar’s decision to take on an academic topic is hardly news. But Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is the kind of researcher whose work is so influential that his very curiosity about a subject can raise its profile.

His data-driven studies on college athletes, affirmative action and college access for the poor have all sparked nationwide debate in recent years, and he attracted widespread attention last year with a speech at the University of Virginia that called for class-based affirmative action in college admissions.

Bowen’s latest project will examine in detail who graduates and who doesn’t — and why — at a group of about 20 varied universities. In an interview, he described the message he will deliver to a Goldman Sachs Foundation gathering on issues facing college trustees as his opening salvo on the topic.

“The United States has always said it believes in opportunity and social mobility and fairness,” Bowen said. “If you find that the odds of getting through are very different for different groups of people, that’s something you ought to be concerned about.”

Racial gaps are another concern. Overall, the federal figures report 57 percent of White students finish their degree, compared with 44 percent of Hispanics and 39 percent of Blacks. A 2004 Education Trust report found a quarter of schools have gaps between Whites and Blacks of 20 points or more.

While student responsibility is a factor, “an awful lot of institutions just assumed that getting them in the door was the most important thing,” said Kati Haycock, director of The Education Trust.

Now, both Haycock and Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, say there are signs that is changing. Graduation rates are on the agenda of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ new national commission on higher education. There is growing research on how colleges can get students more involved in campus life, which makes them more likely to stay enrolled. And Callan says some state legislatures, even in the face of pressure to increase capacity, are exploring budget incentives for schools to improve graduation rates, not just increase enrollment.

“But you have to do it carefully, because if you put all the incentives on completion then you just encourage colleges to cherry pick the population” of students most likely to graduate, Callan said. “There’s already too much of that.”

Associated Press

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