Article of the Day: U.S. Universities and Graduation Rates

Reading this article in the NYT about public universities’ failing graduation rates reminded me of my time in student government in college.  There were 4-year graduation rates and 6-year graduation rates, and I remember thinking that aside from people in pharmacy programs (the fastest track is 6 years), university students should graduate in 5 years, tops.  I think that one reason, which is only glancingly mentioned in the article, is the price of school.  Despite frequent media hullabaloos about college debt, the simple fact is that parents and students are less likely to tolerate paying for a fifth year at a high-priced private school, whereas a fifth year at State U. doesn’t seem beyond reach of the pocketbook. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Money is clearly part of the answer. Tellingly, net tuition has no impact on the graduation rates of high-income students. Yet it does affect low-income students. All else equal, they are less likely to make it through a more expensive state college than a less expensive one, the book shows. Conservatives are wrong to suggest affordability doesn’t matter.

But they are right that more money isn’t the whole answer. Higher education today also suffers from a deep cultural problem. Failure has become acceptable.

Students see no need to graduate in four years. Doing so, as one told the book’s authors, is “like leaving the party at 10:30 p.m.” Graduation delayed often becomes graduation denied. Administrators then make excuses for their graduation rates. And policy makers hand out money based on how many students a college enrolls rather than on what it does with those students.

Clearly, there’s some generalizing going on: probably some students see a need to graduate in four years; although college is a great time, it’s also an expensive time when your earning potential is almost zilch.  Parents do put pressure on their children to finish on time (or, as one of my friends did, a semester early).  But perhaps more should be done at the university level to encourage students to set specific, reachable goals and to graduate on time.  There was a “four-year-plan” option at the University of Iowa, but I definitely knew people who were too indecisive and who fell right off that track.

I found the idea of “under-matching” discussed in the article really intriguing.  I probably “under-matched” when I went to school — I’m positive that I could have attended a more selective, though more expensive, college.  Overall, I’m happy with my choice.  I also graduated in four years.  So really, the issue of graduation rates relies on several factors.  There’s cost, which is prohibitive for some students and families; there’s pressure and pride to finish on time; there’s encouragement from the faculty and staff at a university; there’s the ethos of the school — are “super seniors” commonplace?; and there’s the appropriate “matching” of a student to a school that best approximates his or her abilities.  Complicated, no?

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