Friday, September 15, 2006

Holding Colleges Accountable for Graduation

I seem to be in the mood to blog about colleges this week. It must be the wonderful group of first-year students who have just arrived on campus.

In today's New York Times, we learn that there are some colleges with very low graduation rates. Here's the crux of the matter:

About 50 colleges across the country have a six-year graduation rate below 20 percent, according to the Education Trust, a nonprofit research group. Many of the institutions serve low-income and minority students.

Such numbers have prompted a fierce debate here — and in national education circles — about who is to blame for the results, whether they are acceptable for nontraditional students, and how universities should be held accountable if the vast majority of students do not graduate.

“If you’re accepting a child into your institution, don’t you have the responsibility to make sure they graduate?” asked Melissa Roderick, the co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produced the study.

That's an interesting question, right up there with "If you are going to use a singular noun (child), don't you have the responsibility to make sure you do not use a plural pronoun (they) to refer to it?" It is not a responsibility per se, but you may experience some negative reactions if you let it persist.

We do college students a disservice to refer to them as "children." They are young adults and they are expected to behave as such. That means they need to take responsibility for their progress through college and put forth the effort required.

The challenge in higher education is not to make sure that students graduate. The challenge in higher education is to make sure that the degree they receive when they graduate does in fact represent mastery of college-level academic material. I think it would be a bad move to penalize institutions for a low graduation rate without imposing an even larger material for watering down the standards for passing courses and graduating.

The low graduation rates do indicate a problem. I doubt that the problem is that the standards for performance are too high. I think the main problem is that some students arrive very poorly prepared. A secondary problem may be that some colleges do not do much to support students who need better preparation. The article goes on to note some better practices that some colleges are implementing in the latter respect.


doc said...

I teach at one of the institutions from which less than 20% of incoming students graduate within 6 years. (That percentage it itself somewhat difficult to interpret, as it does not count students who transfer and graduate, but, still,...)

Partly the problem is, as you indicate, poor preparation for many incoming students. The lack of preparation means that more and more students have to take more and more remedial (or, as the current euphemism has it, developmental) work. It's not uncommon for our students to have to take, for example, three math courses before they can take the math course that's a prerequisite for statistics. And they receive no credit toward graduation for the remedial work. Such work can involve up to 24 credit hours of classes--nearly one entire year's worth of classes. In addition to extending the time-to-graduation, this dramatically increases the cost of college.

Secondarily, it's a result of changes in the structure of financial aid. As grants have decline inimportance, debt has increased. As a consequence, the financial burden for the students we serve has probably increased (especially when one couples that with rapidly rising tuition/book prices).

Just a note from life in the trenches.

Anonymous said...

"right up there with "If you are going to use a singular noun (child), don't you have the responsibility to make sure you do not use a plural pronoun (they) to refer to it?" It is not a responsibility per se, but you may experience some negative reactions if you let it persist."

Ha! Damn clever.

Lord said...

Perhaps the real problem is trying to drive ever increasing numbers of students through college although they may not be cut out for it. Perhaps raising admissions is as unrealistic as lowering standards. Perhaps educators have sold their message too well, to get a good job you need a good education, without being able to deliver on the education.

Tom C said...

Andrew - I agree with the use of the phrase, "young adult" -- that indicating a stage of life where we expect good decisions and rarely get them. But we still have to try. The main point here seems to me, though, that although perhaps they are not graduating, these students are certainly better off having had "some college" than the obviously delinquent preparation they received in their high schools. Forcing colleges to graduate more of these kids may do them a disservice overall.

And, you know very well why many people use the pronoun "they" -- they still feel weird using "she" to refer to a generic person (even when women are in the majority) and because we don't have a non-gendered singular personal pronoun like the French "on".

Maybe we should just start using it and see if it catches on. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow. A 20% six-year graduation rate is really low. But I agree with the article that maybe a six-year graduation rate isn't an appropriate way to measure all universities. If you're taking classes at the university while you're also working 35-40 hrs a week to make your car payments, pay your cell phone bill, and maybe pay your rent and personal expenses, your views on things like homework, class attendance, and dropping courses are going to be fundamentally different from someone at Dartmouth whose full-time job is "studying."

Ill-prepared or not, students who work full-time jobs are going to have different centers-of-gravity. School is going to be a peripheral part of their life that can be dropped if need be if the rest of life gets too hectic. That's probably why the two universities mentioned at the end of the article that have improved their graduation rates achieved success by encouraging their students to spend more time on campus or in class.

I still think universities should be held accountable for their graduation rates, though, but only insofar as they are indicators of unreliable enrollment practices. If a state university is funded for enrolling a certain number of students in classes, but by the end of the semester 30% of them have dropped out (they're willing to forfeit the relatively cheap state university tuition), then the state taxpayers are funding a whole third of the student population that isn't there. In essence, the underperforming universities are being rewarded for high dropout rates.

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Biomed Tim said...

Hey, great blog.

If I were an university and if I were held accountable for my poor graduation rate, the easiest thing for me to do would be to stop admitting ill-prepared students. I wouldn't want to spend extra resources into re-educating the students in remedial courses.

What do we do with those students then?