A piece in the December 1st NY Times by Tamar Lewin (“Most College Students Don’t Earn a Degree in 4 Years, Study Finds”) highlights a nonprofit group in Indianapolis, IN, called Complete College America, which has issued a report “Four-Year Myth.” The report decries the fact that most college students do not graduate “on time,” and that this is a waste of money and time.
According to their website, “Established in 2009, Complete College America is a national nonprofit with a single mission: to work with states to significantly increase the number of Americans with quality career certificates or college degrees and to close attainment gaps for traditionally underrepresented populations.”
Immediately after the statement above, they go on to say “Between 1970 and 2009, undergraduate enrollment in the United States more than doubled, while the completion rate has been virtually unchanged.”
Ah, now I see things more clearly.
I laud their efforts but they seem to be a bit fact blind. I graduated with a BS degree in 1969, so I am very close to being a part of their statistic, in fact I can’t imagine there was a significant difference in this metric between 1969 and 1970, so here is my story. I entered community college in 1964 and graduated from a state college in 1969, so it took me five years. I started by testing into college-level English and Math, so I started with no deficiencies to be made up. But my degree goal was a four and a half year program (BS), not a four year program (BA). And when I had completed the first four years (while playing basketball for those years but working while in school only the latter two) I had just three courses left to take. Two of those course were available in the fall semester of my fifth year, but the third was available only in the spring semester. So, I took 12 credits in the fall and 9 in the Spring and had the most enjoyable year of my college years. I had averaged over 16 credits completed per semester through those first four years, so this was a significant decrease in workload. If I remember rightly I got almost all As (not gimmes back then) and barely broke a sweat.
So, as a statistic, I did not “graduate on time.”
What would it have taken to graduate on time? Well, the basic requirements are: to show up at college with few if any deficiencies to make up. Some of the courses taken to make up English and Math deficiencies do not receive credit toward a degree but even if they do, they can create a roadblock in that they prevent one from taking desired classes because one hasn’t met the prerequisite course requirements for other courses (which often have English and Math prereqs).
Then one must pass all of the classes taken, because if you fail, or withdraw for whatever reason, again you can fail to have passed a course needed to take a required course. And one must not make any mistakes in taking the correct courses. Changing one’s major course of study midstream, as it were, can be disastrous toward finishing “on time” as those courses already taken might not meet requirements for graduation in the new major. Taking a wrong course can have lesser but similar problems associated with it. You also have to hope that they don’t change the requirements on you while you are in the process (some institutions allow you to meet the requirements that were in effect when you started, others aren’t so kind).
In other words, you can’t make anything but minor mistakes when plotting your course to a degree.
Now, consider the statement “Between 1970 and 2009, undergraduate enrollment in the United States more than doubled, while the completion rate has been virtually unchanged.” We have ample evidence that prior to the 1960’s or so, that only the cream of the crop went to college. These were students who basically had B or A averages in high school. The community college movement, which exploded in the 1960’s, encouraged the entrance of students into college who did not have such good grades in high school, students who had C and even D averages. I think it is safe to say that the “doubling” of undergraduate enrollment wasn’t achieved by adding students who were as qualified as those who went before. These students had less college experience in their families (which could help guide them), and they had more English and Math deficiencies that had to be “made up” but also put them at a disadvantage while taking classes with students not having such handicaps.
So, what are the odds that these students (I was one in that I was the first person in my family to graduate from college) could jump through all the hoops, in the right order, not making anything but smallish mistakes and “graduate on time?” I think the odds were much poorer for these folks than for the previous cohort, but “the completion rate has been virtually unchanged!” This is a major success.
“There is no crisis! Do not run around with your hair on fire.
We need to solve real problems and not the problems we ‘think’ exist.”
I repeat: this is a major success! Taking on less prepared students and not having a drop in completion rate is tremendous.
Compounding this situation are studies that show that success in program completion is related greatly to whether or not students have a specific goal when attending college. Studies also show that a great many of the “New Students” (Yes, they were called “New Students” back then.) do not have specific goals when entering college. They were there to explore “unexplored territory.”
Add to this the fact that the now ubiquitous presence of community colleges has enabled a new form a college attendance. People between jobs or a dead end job often look the community colleges to upgrade their skills and often this involves only taking a few courses, having no intention whatsoever of getting any kind of degree or certificate. When you survey students to determine which are pursuing a degree and which are not (explorers, skill improvers, skill updaters, etc.) you find the complete rates are much higher that the ones reported. The rates reported often include students who had no graduation goal at all which makes them suspect at best.
And I must add that the “New Students” are not as affluent as the old one’s were, so they work more hours while attending college which cuts into their study time and class time. Add to that the fact that college has gotten more expensive at a rate only slower than medical costs has exacerbated this problem. Students working more hours have a hard time going to school “full time.”
Am I saying there is no work to do here? No, I would like to see young college students given more assistance in developing their goals and in securing their goals through better planning. But … there is no crisis! Do not run around with your hair on fire. We need to solve real problems and not the problems we “think” exist.
And we have the tendency to talk down the sources of perceived failures (It is the fault of the Teachers’ Unions! It’s those damned liberal universities! etc.) and that does not help; in fact it undermines our self-esteem and our ability to marshal the resources to solve the real problems.