NYTimes: U.S. Colleges Are Failing in Getting Students to Graduate

September 9, 2009 at 10:56 am 3 comments

A really interesting article in today’s New York Times addresses an issue that we’ve been discussing in this blog recently: What is the responsibility of getting students to graduate? Economic Scene – U.S. Colleges Are Failing in Getting Students to Graduate – NYTimes.com talks about a new book that uses new data to analyze graduation rates across the United States.  A blog post at the NYTimes provides access to some of the original data.  The article points out that underprepared high school students are an issue, but not the most critical one.  A bigger issue is too much focus on enrollment and too little on finishing.

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Moving the Needle Matthias Felleisen in Response to Blog Post

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  September 9, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Some years ago I heard about a program at C.U. Boulder where they would give incoming students a discount on their tuition if they would make a pact with the university to complete a degree program in 4 years. The rationale I heard was that they wanted to keep university resources available for incoming freshmen. If students stayed longer at the undergraduate level it made it harder to enroll as many freshmen each year. There may have been some cost to the university as well if students stayed longer, but I don’t recall any being mentioned.

    The Times article points to the motivations of colleges and I think that’s definitely something to look at. I’ve been hearing some commentary first and second-hand over the last year that indicates that colleges are purposely bringing in students who most likely are not going to complete a degree program. The reason they put forward is universal access to higher education, and a belief that even some college is better than no college. This is the opposite of what I used to hear was the norm.

    Leonhardt wonders why lower income students choose to go to universities that “under match”. It could be something very basic. It doesn’t sound like it’s academic. It could be that they don’t know what to look for in a good university, and so they think one university is as good as another. I remember I didn’t have a good grasp of this when I was in high school. It could be that the “under match” universities market themselves better to these students. It could be that their friends have chosen to attend these universities, for whatever reason, and they want to join them. That was a factor in my decision at the time. They may be intimidated by the universities that would serve them better. They may want to feel socially accepted, and be among people they feel are their social peers. They may “self select” and make a decision based on class. The better universities may present an image of prestige, something they may feel is unnatural to them. I know you like survey data for this sort of thing. I’m just offering up some areas to explore.

  • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  September 11, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    I wonder about all of this. Yes there is probably too much emphasis on enrollment and not enough on retention but how much of the problem is the students? Or perhaps the circumstances of the students.
    One of the schools with a high percentage of non-completers in UMass Boston. It serves a population that includes many non-traditional students. These are students who cannot attend a college where they can live on campus and be full-time students. They have to work to pay their way and they have other barriers in their way as well. Short of giving these students housing and a stipend – hardly practical – these students are going to have a disadvantage over students who can be full-time resident students at say UMass Amherst. A disadvantage greater than any perceived resources, faculty or student support that may also be factors. I know faculty at both schools and am impressed with them all BTW. And I am convinced that both schools want to help students succeed and graduate.

    As a society we don’t support education as much as we should. The costs of state schools are increasing all the time. As are private schools of course. But it seems like funding goes to the most impressive schools before it goes to those who need it most. Harvard has the largest endowment in the world and yet people still give them money hand over fist while other schools with very little in endowment get next to nothing. talk about the rich getting richer.

    Now it is no doubt true that the highest ranked, most selective schools do more to retain students than some (many) other schools. But they do it because they have the resources to do so. Having the will is not enough; it takes resources which many states are not willing or able to provide.

    • 3. Erik Engbrecht  |  September 11, 2009 at 7:53 pm

      Alfred, I don’t think it’s so much a matter of investing more in education, it’s a matter of investing it better. An incoming student with high test scores and HS GPA is a much lower risk investment than one with lower grades/scores. A existing student who is maintaining a high GPA is a lower risk than one who is not. In economic terms, an engineering or business graduate can be expected to yield a much higher return on investment than a liberal arts student.

      But to my knowledge most of our nation’s financial aide programs focus financial need relative to the cost of the institution attended as opposed to academic performance and the economic value of the course of study.

      I went to college in the late nineties. I did not qualify for financial aide. My father told me under no uncertain terms that I could study engineering or business, and that I had to maintain a decent GPA. Otherwise I could come home and he would put me to work at the family business, or I could simply go out and find my own way without his support.

      As frustrating as that attitude was for me at time…it worked. He treated education as an investment in future earnings, and was ready to cut his losses should that investment not be working out. Distributing resources in any other way isn’t investing in education. It’s throwing money in its general direction and hoping that some comes back.


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