Eight Ways to Get Higher Education Into Shape

Published on February 20, 2011
by Washington Post Magazine in College Rankings, Graduation Rates

From Daniel de Vise's article:

Tie public funds to finishing college

"In 2009, President Obama invoked Sputnik-era patriotic angst in announcing his American Graduation Initiative, an agenda targeting community colleges but with the broader purpose of regaining the world lead in college completion by 2020.

The Obama initiative arrived amid a veritable wave of college-completion goal-setting: philanthropy heavyweight the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008 pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to double the number of low-income students who complete degrees or credentials. The Lumina Foundation that year proposed 60 percent completion by 2025. Several other nonprofits and industry associations have weighed in.

The notion that most Americans should finish college is comparatively new. As recently as 1970, 11 percent of adults held bachelor's degrees and barely half had finished high school.

Newer still is the pervasive societal fear that we have lost the world lead in college completion. A 2010 report by the nonprofit College Board shows America ranking 12th among 36 industrialized countries in the share of young adults, 40 percent, who hold at least an associate degree. Canada is the nation to beat, at 56 percent.

Catching Canada may be the least of our worries. A new wave of data and research, triggered by a change in federal law, has unearthed alarming disparities in college completion among students of different racial and ethnic groups.

The latest data show 60 percent of whites, 49 percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of blacks seeking bachelor's degrees attain them within six years of enrollment. The overall six-year graduation rate is 57 percent.

College completion already tops 60 percent in the more privileged sectors of higher education, including nonprofit four-year colleges and the more selective public colleges. Policy leaders have naturally turned to the groups with the lowest rates of success. In public community colleges, the Obama administration's focus, fewer than 30 percent complete associate degrees or credential programs. (Finishing any postsecondary program counts toward the national goal.) Among Hispanics, the fastest-growing racial or ethnic category in higher education, only one-fifth of adults hold degrees.

The Hispanic Scholarship Fund has set a goal that someone in every Hispanic household hold a degree. The Gates Foundation and Obama administration have thrown their weight behind community colleges, where new approaches could yield the 5 million new community college graduates the president seeks.

Several groups have collected examples of "best practices" ripe for replication. Schools with high minority completion tend to track students relentlessly from enrollment to graduation, with reams of data and an "intrusive" brand of academic counseling.

"You really have to start paying attention to these students before they enroll, and you don't stop paying attention to them until you hand them their diploma," said Kevin Carey, policy director of the think tank Education Sector.

That may not be enough. Jamie Merisotis, chief executive of Lumina, suggests that at least 10 percent of public funding to colleges be awarded on the basis of completion, particularly among low-income, minority, adult and first-generation students. States typically fund public colleges based on who enrolls, not who graduates.

Accreditors, the chief accountability agents in higher education, could also pressure schools to address graduation disparities, said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

"There frankly are no real consequences for colleges right now that large numbers of their students don't make it," she said. ..."