The college completion challenge

A recent article in the Washington Monthly is subtitled “The problem is not college debt, it’s low graduation rates. Fix that, and you fix the economy.” Probably an exaggeration. But correct in both that college completion is important to reversing the decline in American living standards and far more of a challenge than too high student loans.

The article reports: Recent research from the economist Beth Akers shows that borrowers with less than $5,000 in student debt are the most likely to be late on payments. In fact, the more college debt a student incurs, the less likely he or she is to default. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not—a low loan balance is indicative of a borrower who didn’t complete school, and is therefore less likely to repay. According to Department of Education statistics, defaulters also tend to be older (the median age is thirty eight), from low-income backgrounds, with poor financial literacy, and with no degree to show for their efforts. A disproportionate number of them attended for-profit colleges.

This is all evidence of a large crisis in American higher education: we have a big college completion problem. More than thirty-one million adults have earned college credit within the last twenty years but left without any post-secondary credential. By 2012, only 59 percent of students seeking a bachelor’s degree graduated within six years. For students seeking a certificate or degree at a two-year institution, the completion rate was 31 percent. (Emphasis added.)

A recent MLive article on the Kalamazoo Promise––the national model tuition free program––reported “… that starting with the KPS Class of 2006, The Promise has paid $61 million in tuition for 3,700 students. As of November 2014, more than 800 have earned a degree or post-secondary certificate. But there are another 1,000 students who entered college and dropped out …”

The article continues: “Our 12th graders are not ready for college,” parent Leona Carter said. “The benchmarks are not high enough in high school.” Participants (Promise students and parents)  also suggested the high schools need more counselors to help students through the college application and admission process; students need more visits to college campuses outside of the field trip taken by all KPS sixth-graders; and KPS graduates need to be better prepared for the self-discipline that college requires.”

Lower or even free tuition isn’t going to fix the low rates of college completion alone. As the Promise parents and students noted we need more rigorous high schools, organized to deliver far better teaching and learning and to build skills that matter that are not measured by standardized tests. But we also need higher education institutions that are organized to provide the supports students need to earn a college degree.

Far too many of our colleges and universities are organized on a sink of swim model. We admit you, provide the classes you need to graduate and everything else is up to the student. That model gets high drop out rates and needs to change.

The Washington Monthly article has some examples of colleges and universities that are organizing themselves to support student success. Michigan Future published a report that is a case study of four colleges and universities that are getting much higher graduation rates because they are supporting students. And MDRC published an evaluation report of the City University of New York’s (CUNY’s) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs which has dramatically improved graduation rates. So increasing college completion rates is doable. We need to make it the priority at all colleges and universities.


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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.

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