This fall, well over a million freshmen will enroll as full-time students in four-year colleges and universities across the U.S. To pay for the rising costs of college, families will tap hard-earned savings, students will take on thousands in loans and taxpayers will provide millions upon millions of dollars in subsidies and grants.
Most of these students expect to earn a bachelor's degree. Yet the sad truth is that six years from now, in 2015, the data suggest that barely half will have an earned a degree--and, out of the vast pool of students who do not attend elite institutions, only four in 10 will do so.
At a time when college degrees are valuable and when President Barack Obama has called on the nation to dramatically increase its number of college graduates, these figures should give us pause. How confident can we be that new students who matriculate will graduate, or that setting aside additional funds for higher education will help the president's bold promises come to fruition?
Some students head off to college seeking top-shelf music programs, tiny seminars or lush campus landscapes. These fortunate students search across the nation for the right college and compete feverishly to win admission to a small pool of elite institutions.
But our focus here is not on these few but on the majority of students: those who search for institutions that are close to home, those who are focused on the practical benefits of earning a degree and those who attend schools that accept most of their applicants. The reality is that this population is all too often ill-served by colleges and universities today.
Confronted with these dismal graduation rates, many colleges point to their academic mission or blame students, citing poor high school preparation and the need to enroll a diverse array of undergraduates, not all of whom are college-ready. But a close analysis of graduation rates reveals wide variance among institutions that admit students with similar track records and test scores.
Using official graduation rate data from almost 1,400 colleges as reported to the U.S. Department of Education coupled with selectivity ratings from the widely used Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, we recently cataloged the gaps between similarly selective colleges that do and don't graduate their students. (For the full report, click here.) Within each and every category of selectivity, there were substantial differences between the schools that graduate most students and those that graduate only a few.
Take, for instance, the "competitive" category. It contains institutions that take students with average scores of 500 to 572 on each of the SAT's three sections (math, critical reading and writing) and GPAs that range from C to B-; they tend to accept 75% to 85% of their applicants. When we ranked the 660 schools in this category by their graduation rate, the average for the bottom 10 places was shockingly low--only 20%. In contrast, the average graduation rate for the top 10 schools in the category was about 75%. The schools ranked near the bottom of the competitive category include Chicago State University in Illinois (16% six-year graduation rate), Coppin State University in Maryland (19%), and Long Island University-Brooklyn Campus in New York (21%).Schools in the top include Merrimack College in Massachusetts (78%), Westminster College in Pennsylvania (76%) and Moravian College in Ohio (75%).
Put simply, students with roughly the same credentials were three times more likely to graduate in six years if they had gone to one set of schools rather than the other.
At a bare minimum, students and their parents should be aware of these large differences before choosing an institution on which to spend so much time and so much money. And yet these data are largely unknown even by guidance counselors, much less by most applicants and their families.
The graduation rate statistic we used is flawed and imperfect, but it is the onlyone available for all the colleges and universities we studied. It covers only first-time, full-time students--what most people would call a "traditional" college freshman--which is only about one-quarter of today's students. It also fails to account for transfer students.
Moreover, high graduation rates are not a uniformly good thing; low graduation rates might reflect a rigorous curriculum and a high level of quality control. After all, a foolproof way to increase graduation rates is to give diplomas out like candy to anyone who shows up.
In spite of these caveats, when two colleges enrolling students of similar ability have a sizable graduation rate gap, it is fair to wonder why. So what is to be done?
First, applicants, guidance counselors and taxpayers deserve to know which schools graduate most of their students and which graduate only a few. Graduation rate data should be readily available, displayed in a user-friendly format and audited to ensure accuracy, alongside data on other important criteria such as cost, location and program offerings.
Second, the graduation rate measure is the only comparable index of performance available for most schools in the country. But it should be just the beginning of a smarter inquiry into what makes a college successful--one driven by more accurate measures of student learning, future earnings and eventual success in the workplace.
In the aftermath of our June report, many schools asked us to correct their graduation rate because the results had been misreported to the Department of Education. Sometimes, as a few schools frankly admitted, that was because no one historically cared about this particular data point. But students, parents and the nation deserve accurate data on the payoff for attending a college or university.
With a president pledging to return the U.S. to a leader in college completion, families wrestling with crippling levels of debt and states struggling to close yawning deficits, it is high time that colleges and universities be held more accountable for their handiwork.
Freshmen who enroll in a college or university should have a reasonable expectation that they will earn a degree in a timely fashion. Where they do not, prospective students and policymakers alike should take a hard look at business as usual.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Andrew P. Kelly is a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Mark Schneider is vice president at the American Institutes for Research and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.