America's College Graduation Rate Crisis

by Vault Education Editors | June 11, 2009

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The American Enterprise Institute released a study yesterday called "Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don't)," comparing graduation rates to admission selectivity among U.S. colleges and universities. They surveyed 1,3000 four-year undergraduate programs from across the country. In their study, they divided colleges into six "levels of selectivity" based on the standards set by Barron's Profiles of American Colleges and set about comparing the percentage of students who graduated in six years or less. In a nutshell, they found that the more selective the institution, the higher its graduation rate. If you are accepted to Harvard, for example, there is little you could do not to graduate. According to the study, "Noncompetitive institutions graduate, on average, 35 percent of their students, while the most competitive institutions graduate 88 percent." In other words, if you go to a highly competitive school, you are two-thirds more likely to graduate than if you went to a noncompetitive school. Admittedly, much of this is because of the kind of students who go to highly competitive schools--highly driven, type-A kids.

"America's college graduation rate crisis is not happening at the handful of institutions that admit only a few of their applicants and graduate most--it is happening at a large swath of institutions that admit many but graduate few."

While these results aren't surprising, what is unexpected is the difference in graduation rates within a given selectivity level. "In the noncompetitive category, the range in graduation rates spans ninety-two percentage points, from Southern University, New Orleans, at 8 percent to Arkansas Baptist College at 100 percent." As President Obama commits more funding to higher education so that the U.S. can "once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world," consideration should be given to which schools receive support--and what they will use it for.

"We believe that the graduation rate measure included here should be just the beginning of a deeper inquiry into college success--one driven by more accurate measures broadly defined: in future earnings, in acquiring knowledge, in succeeding in the workplace, and ultimately in becoming the kind of citizens on which the stability and prosperity of our society rest. Colleges play a large role in shaping those outcomes, for good or ill--more so, perhaps, than is often believed."

Filed Under: Education

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