Raising College Graduation Rates Isn't Enough

By Thomas K. Lindsay
(The Graduates (Sakeeb Sabakka) / CC BY 2.0)

Imagine this: A study shows that America’s automotive industry is producing cars that are defective in 36 percent of cases. How does the industry respond to the crisis? By announcing an initiative to build still more of said clunkers, but faster and cheaper. Like this solution? Then you’ll love the latest trend in higher education.

Across the country, a bipartisan chorus has arisen demanding an improvement in college graduation rates. This is reasonable. Roughly half of all entering students never finish college, and most of those who do graduate take longer than four years, which raises the cost of a degree not only for them but also for taxpayers, who subsidize higher education. Those who don’t graduate leave with the insult of personal failure added to the injury of student-loan debt, which, because they lack a degree, is harder to repay. Total student-loan debt now approaches one trillion dollars, which is more than credit card debt nationwide.

In an effort to boost graduation rates, 16 states have adopted or are moving toward adopting “outcomes-based funding,” under which a portion of state appropriations to public colleges and universities is allocated on the basis of each school’s achieving certain “outcomes.” The outcomes most emphasized revolve around graduation rates.

Though understandable, this focus on graduation rates threatens only to exacerbate a far-deeper crisis in American higher education: too many students today learn far too little in college. In Academically Adrift, the landmark national study published in 2011, 2300 students nationwide were administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure what they learned while in college. The study found that 36 percent show “small or empirically non-existent” gains in fundamental academic skills — critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills — after four years of college. Adrift fingers some factors that contribute to this malady: In the last 50 years, student study time has fallen on average from 24 to 14 hours a week. Yet, professors are giving these lower-effort students ever-higher grades. In the early ‘60s, about 15 percent of grades given were A’s. Today, 43 percent of all grades are A’s. A’s have in fact become the most common grade in college. This collapse of standards only incentivizes students to study still less.

The discovery that we are failing 36 percent of our students is the elephant in the faculty lounge. No one in higher-ed seems to want to talk about it. Until we do, focusing on graduation rates runs the risk of mimicking the “solution” offered by our imagined automobile industry. Unfettered by an external measure of quality assurance such as the CLA, increasing graduation rates threatens only to devalue further the already-questionable value of a college degree.

Simply put, because 36 percent of college students learn little under the current arrangement, merely speeding up the assembly line promises only to diminish quality further. If graduation-rate fever crowds out attention to the crisis in student learning, what will result is the creation of an even greater raw number of students possessing degrees but not the academic skills that a degree is meant to signify and an employer is entitled to expect.

There has been much criticism of the handful of for-profit universities that deliver little educational value to students at an inflated cost, and rightly so. Why, then, turn a blind eye to the fact that more than one in three students suffers much the same fate at our non-profit, public and private institutions of higher learning? Again, overstressing graduation rates threatens only to exacerbate this blindness.

This is not to deny that common-sense measures will provide marginal increases in graduation rates. For example, the University of Texas System’s “Framework for Advancing Excellence” promises to raise rates through improving academic advising and making more available the courses students need to graduate in four years. Such measures will certainly help, and are overdue.

Finally, some see in a single-minded focus on graduation rates the same mindset that contributed to the home-mortgage debacle. Policy makers decided that home ownership is good in itself, rather than a sign of the positive traits that go into buying and maintaining a home, such as paying one’s debts on time, longevity on the job, good citizenship, etc. They mistakenly deemed home ownership to be more the cause than the effect of these traits (it’s both). As a sign of the times, this mindset has had strong bipartisan support across the Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama administrations.

Does the recent frenzy over graduation rates risk falling prey to an analogous fallacy? Are we tempted to infer that if we increase graduation rates we will simultaneously increase the good things that generally accompany possession of a degree? Like home ownership, a college degree is less the cause and more the effect of the traits we associate with it. Persistence, discipline, personal responsibility, and general aptitude are characteristics required not only to graduate but to succeed in life generally. To assume that these traits will increase simply with the awarding of a degree is reminiscent of the gag in the film, The Wizard of Oz. The Wizard fixes the Scarecrow’s problem (“If I only had a brain”) by awarding the Scarecrow a “Th.D., or Doctorate in Thinkology.” Fixating on graduation rates unhinged from student-learning outcomes runs the risk of turning this fictional farce into a real-life tragedy.

Doubtless, low graduation rates are a source of concern, but let’s not fool ourselves: The real crisis is not how many students will pass today, but rather, what passes today for student-learning.

Thomas K. Lindsay, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and author (with Gary Glenn) of Investigating American Democracy (Oxford University Press).

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