Legislation to Improve Graduation Rates Could Have the Opposite Effect

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

This is an opinion piece I wrote for the Chronicle Review and published on January 23, 2004. I stumbled upon it the other day and thought it was worth a repost on The Swail Letter. Let me know if you agree, disagree, and whether the same holds true 13 years later.


As Congress tackles the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it will undoubtedly tinker with Pell Grants, loan limits, teacher training, and distance education, just as it has in the past. What makes this reauthorization different, however, is the potential for legislators to create new mechanisms to hold colleges, and perhaps states, more accountable for quality, affordability, and student outcomes. One target for government action is institutional graduation rates.

Over the past 50 years, college enrollment has increased about sevenfold, to more than 15 million students. Yet, through much of that time, average graduation rates for four-year colleges have basically held constant, at about 50 percent, and have been as low as 34 percent at two-year institutions. Put another way, at least half of all students who have entered a four-year institution have failed to realize the dreams and aspirations that led them there in the first place. That issue, as part of an overall discussion of accountability, has caught the attention of the Bush administration and members of Congress.

civil_rights_act_onpage
President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington, July 2, 1964. The CRA, along with the Social Security Act and Higher Education Act in 1965, were crucial pieces of legislation for the middle class. Johnson used 75 pens to sign the Bill, giving them to participants in the process, including Martin Luther King, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and Senator Everett Dirksen. (AP)

Early last year, the administration floated the idea of creating a grant program to reward institutions that retain students and graduate them on time. While no specific legislation has been proposed, policy makers are considering with interest a model developed by Eugene W. Hickok Jr., U.S. undersecretary of education, when he was Pennsylvania’s secretary of education. He created a $6-million grant program to reward Pennsylvania institutions that graduated at least 40 percent of their in-state students within four years. Unfortunately, not one public college in the state has qualified.

It’s not surprising that government leaders are calling on colleges to graduate many more students — and that some legislators have even suggested tying institutions’ Title IV funds, which are used for student-aid programs, to graduation rates. But unless Congress recognizes that different institutions face different challenges, and unless it provides adequate resources to help increase retention, it will be asking the impossible. In fact, any such legislation could have the opposite effect: reducing access for poor and minority students and creating even greater numbers of dropouts.

In recent years, the problem of keeping students in college has intensified because the basic concept of “going to college” has changed drastically. The nature of the student body and the pathways to and through postsecondary education have become far more heterogeneous and complex. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, which surveyed more than 9,000 students from hundreds of institutions in 1996, with follow-up surveys in 1998 and 2001, one-quarter of freshmen are from low-income backgrounds, almost one-third are nonwhite, and 40 percent are the first in their families to attend college. Such students — often not as academically or socially prepared as others for higher education — are more prone to drop out. Indeed, 45 percent of black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students, on average, leave college within six years without earning degrees, compared with 33 percent of white students and 26 percent of Asian-American students. Similar gaps exist by income.

The survey also revealed that:

  • Students who attended full time or on a continuous basis were much more likely to obtain bachelor’s degrees than other students were.
  • Half of the students who immediately enrolled in public four-year colleges earned their degrees at those institutions, compared with only 27 percent of the students who delayed enrollment.
  • One-fourth of all students who enrolled in college for the first time moved to other institutions before obtaining degrees.
  • Almost half of first-time students who left their initial institutions by the end of the first year have not returned to higher education.

Such data convincingly demonstrate that immediate and continuous enrollment, full-time attendance, and remaining at the initial institution are important factors related to student persistence. Students from higher-income backgrounds are significantly more likely than lower-income students to fit that profile and go on to earn bachelor’s degrees. To help improve the odds that students from all walks of life will stay and get their degrees, colleges must provide additional services and support.

But their ability to provide such services and support varies greatly from one college to another. Last year, while directing a national study on student retention, I visited several institutions that serve a high proportion of low-income students. Half of the colleges had high graduation rates, and half had low graduation rates. We expected to find that those with high graduation rates would have a strong commitment to retaining students, shared by dedicated administrators and faculty members whose teaching strategies helped students from all backgrounds flourish academically and socially. And they did.

However, we were surprised at the extent to which money trumped all other factors in the ability of institutions to engage and retain students. Regardless of the success of any of their other efforts, colleges without the necessary resources could not even come close to those that could invest substantially in retaining students.

Wealthier institutions, like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can afford to assign tutors to students, keep class sizes small, and provide extensive support services — and, of course, they graduate almost all of their students. At the other end of the educational spectrum are institutions with limited resources at their disposal. Lacking multibillion-dollar endowments, they are often open-admission colleges that must fight regionally and locally for students with combined SAT scores of 900, not 1450. They are likely to see 75 percent of their students leave before graduation. In fact, as many as 50 percent of their students leave by the end of the freshman year.

Those institutions are doing as well as could be expected given their financial circumstances. We found that their administrators and faculty and staff members were as dedicated, if not more so, as those at other institutions, and that they offered a good-quality education. Yet their missions often differed significantly from those of wealthier colleges. For some, the institutional mission was to provide an educational experience for students who normally would be denied such an opportunity. Other institutions, like historically black colleges and universities, were born to provide a rich cultural experience in parallel with academics. While affluent institutions can pile on resource after resource to make the difference in who comes, who stays, and who completes college, those other institutions settle for what they can muster from stretched budgets.

Unfortunately, that fundamental truth is being ignored on Capitol Hill today. Congress is right to require institutions to do more to keep their students enrolled. Yet colleges can’t improve retention if they don’t have the necessary financial support. Given the current atmosphere in Congress, institutions are more likely to lose resources than to gain them.

Indeed, if colleges continue to struggle for funds, the easiest way for them to improve graduation rates will be to restrict admissions, potentially forcing students out of universities and into community colleges, or out of community colleges and into low-paying jobs or unemployment lines. That could have the very opposite effect of what policy makers are seeking.

Legislators and Bush-administration officials ought to recognize the diversity of higher education: Different types of institutions serve different constituencies and have different missions. Any federal policy crafted to improve student retention should reflect that reality. Government leaders must create a system in which institutions are measured by their improvement rather than simply compared with peer institutions. The many anomalies among institutions make simple comparisons unfair.

In addition, policy makers must provide safety nets so that institutions can try new approaches without being penalized. There is nothing inherently wrong with incentive systems that reward institutions for “making the grade.” But it would be counterproductive if those without adequate resources to start with failed and — in a vicious cycle — lost out on funds that would help them do a better job in serving and retaining students.

Finally, the federal government should support and distribute research on student retention. College administrators need models that work.

Although the states are in poor financial straits, they, too, should adjust their priorities. A lack of resources is starving institutions of the government support they need to develop new retention programs. While it will not be easy, states need to deal with the problem of college dropouts before it becomes an economic debacle within their own borders and beyond.

Nor should institutions simply sit back and wait. As a result of growing financial pressures, presidents have become increasingly preoccupied with fund-raising and development activities unrelated to the academic mission. But they must refocus their attention on students and on keeping them enrolled. Retention starts in the president’s office. Without that leadership, any other campus efforts will be largely in vain.

We must continue the debate about graduation rates and encourage participation by federal and state policy makers, educators, and the public. But unless we recognize the different roles that various institutions play, and provide them with the resources needed to meet the challenge of college dropouts, the problem will only worsen. We must find better ways for policy makers and institutional leaders to work together to create greater opportunities and support for all qualified students.

http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 50, Issue 20, Page B16

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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