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Reforms Needed to Boost Graduation Rates, Educators Tell Congress

Reforms Needed to Boost Graduation Rates, Educators Tell Congress
By Peggy Orchowski

America’s college graduation rates need a shot in the arm, according to educators who recently discussed the renewal of the Higher Education Act with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Without reforms, the educators agreed, the country’s future is in danger.
“Today, (only) 63 percent of students who begin college as full-time freshman receive their bachelor’s degree after six years,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., at a mid-July hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is shepherding the reauthorization of HEA. Miller, who is the ranking Democrat on the committee, was quoting from “A Matter of Degrees: Improving Graduation Rates in Four-Year Colleges and Universities,” a May 2004 report by The Education Trust. 
More students than ever enter college — four out of every five “on-time high school graduates” do so, according to The Education Trust. While the overall rate of graduation has decreased four percent since 1984, failing to finish college has far greater career-advancement and lifetime-earning consequences today.
“High cost is a key barrier against entry and completion of college for millions of students in the United States,” Miller said. “Yet (the Republican plan) fails to provide any meaningful relief from rising tuition.”
Miller was referring to the College Access and Opportunity Act, a measure House Republicans introduced earlier this year in an effort to wrap up the renewal of the Higher Education Act.
But Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, who is chairman of the House committee, said colleges need to be more accountable.
“Parents and taxpayers need more information about it — if students are getting something meaningful in return for their money. Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is not about writing a bigger check while perpetuating the status quo,” he said.
Panelists at the hearing included Ross Wiener, policy director of The Education Trust; Dr. Paul Lingenfelter, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers; Dr. Richard Nault, vice president for student affairs at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; and Dr. William D. Law Jr., president of Florida’s Tallahassee Community College.
Questioning whether the college graduation gap and low graduation rates can be attributed to state cutbacks in higher-education spending, Lingenfelter quoted a recent SHEEO study showing that since 1970, state support nationally has kept pace with substantial enrollment growth and inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index).
“Over time, it seems that educational spending keeps up, even as tuition tends to grow,” he said. “The most dramatic finding is enrollment growth. Some 800,000 FTE (full-time equivalent) students have been added since 2001, more than half the total growth recorded in the past 12 years. I expect much of that enrollment growth has been in community colleges, where tuition tends to be lower. That would account (in part) for our findings regarding state funding.”
Wiener of The Education Trust said, “Congress should commit to a five-year trajectory to recoup the buying power of Pell Grants. It should also eliminate excessive subsidies and directly administer a greater portion of federally guaranteed student financial assistance, such as has been proposed by Congressmen Miller and (Thomas) Petri.”
All the panelists agreed that other factors besides costs also have affected graduation rates, such as institutional priorities. Miami University was cited as a model institution, with an overall graduation rate of 81 percent and a minority-student graduation rate of 65 percent (compared to 47 percent nationally). Nault, Miami’s vice president for student affairs, credited this success to his school’s mission.
“We teach,” he said. “All full-time faculty are expected to teach, as well as to do research, and we teach not only in the classroom, but in the research labs, in advising, tutoring support and in the ways we mentor students outside of class.” The university also charges the same tuition to all students (in- or out-of-state), but with generous scholarships for Ohio students showing need.
According to The Education Trust report, students who stayed at one school for the duration of their studies had the best chances of graduating. This includes those who began at a community college and transferred to a four-year school.
Law of Tallahassee Community College pointed out that 46 percent of all African American undergraduates and 56 percent of all Hispanic American undergraduates are part of the more than 6 million credit and 5.5 million non-credit students enrolled in American community colleges each year. Community colleges also enroll 49 percent of all first-generation college students, he said.
“Nearly two-thirds of all community college students attend on a part-time basis and many are nontraditional students — older, working, living off campus and with family responsibilities,” he said. “We proudly think of ourselves as being the Ellis Island of higher education.”
Still, Law said, graduation rates are a persistent problem.
“It is commonplace for community college students to leave programs before completion because good jobs are readily available, oftentimes with the very employers who have helped sponsor a technical training program. In fact, many students enroll in our institutions with no intention of attaining a degree. With the completion of a few courses they may have gotten the skills and competencies they need to get or keep a desired job,” he said. “However, while this behavior may be financially instrumental in the short-term, it is not always conducive to a student’s long-term benefit, because, over time, degree attainment does matter.”
After two hours of discussion where Law continually pointed out the diversity of community college student goals and the difficulty of assessing collective graduation rates, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., said he wasn’t “sure that we should be beating ourselves up regarding graduation rates.”
“While graduation (benefits) can be measured perhaps in individual financial gain, there are lots of other ways to assess college effectiveness,” he said. “Perhaps we should have an individual student-tracking system rather than track the collective graduation rate.”
Ultimately, lower graduation rates have worrisome implications for the country’s future, the panel agreed. The United States has lost its first-place position in terms of college attainment (the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with four-year degrees), according to The Education Trust report.
“India spends more on college education than the U.S.,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.
Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the committee will continue its work with HEA renewal this fall and, if need be, next year.

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