Improving College Graduation Rates

At Michigan Future, Inc. we believe that investments in higher education are the single best thing the state can do to grow a high prosperity economy. It is the best asset we have to grow a knowledge-based economy.

In the Twentieth Century we built one of the best public higher ed systems on the planet when it didn’t matter so much to economic growth. This century when it does, we have been disinvesting in it with state support declining by thirteen percent since 2000. Real dumb!

Our support for higher ed is unwavering, but it does not mean that we don’t also think there is room for improvement. In particular, except for those with highly selective admissions, our colleges and universities have low graduation rates. Its a national problem, but one we need to address.

The higher ed graduation rate is about half. And maybe more worrisome is, that despite far more enrolling in college, the proportion of adults with either a two year or four year degree nationally has been stagnant for about three decades at around one third. The Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials, so far, have about the same proportion of college grads.

Can we do better? I think so. My optimism in large part is based on the big improvements we are getting in new urban high schools here and around the country.  A decade ago hardly anyone believed we could create open enrollment urban high schools that could get graduation rates of 90% and college attendance rates of 90%. Better results than many suburban high schools.

The typical response of urban high school educators is to blame k-8s, parents and the community for high dropout rates. There isn’t anything we can do with kids who are so behind. But, of course, we now know there is something that high school educators can do that get far better results. It starts with educators taking responsibility for student achievement.

All too often this blaming others is what you get from higher ed officials when you raise their low graduation rates. Its the students and/or the high schools fault. Which, of course, raises the question “why are you enrolling so many students you believe you can’t educate?”

Its time for college and university educators to take responsibility as well for student achievement. I think, just like with urban high schools, once they do we can get big achievement gains.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.