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ETS Study Tracks Worrisome Trend in Rate of College Completion

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Higher education is becoming like the Bermuda Triangle, says a study by the nation's biggest testing company. Record numbers of students are going in, but most are not coming out.

The report published last month by the Educational Testing Service's Policy Information Center suggests that community colleges are not alone in producing few bachelor's-degree candidates. Four-year colleges and universities also have low--and worsening--graduation rates.

For More Information

Copies of the report, "Toward Inequality: Disturbing Trends in Higher Education," are available from: Policy Information Center, Mail Stop 04-R, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08541-0001; (609) 734-5694.

While rising numbers of students have been enrolled on college campuses, the percentage of all 25- to 29-year-olds who have completed four years of college or more has held steady for the past two decades at about 25 percent, the report says.

And completion rates are especially low among the nation's poorest families. Whether they enter a community college or seek a four-year degree, only three in 10 students from the lowest economic quartile will graduate, according to the study from the Princeton, N.J.-based ETS.

"We're dipping deeply into the high school population with a sieve, and half of them are leaking through," said Paul E. Barton, the author of the report.

Michael W. Kirst, a Stanford University education professor, said the low graduation rates Mr. Barton documents raise troubling questions for higher education. "This really ought to call for an examination of college and what happens to students when they attend college," he said.

Experts said the disproportionately low completion rates among poor students were especially worrisome in light of setbacks for race-based admissions policies at colleges and universities.

"People do know that completion rates are not good," said Margaret Miller, the president of the American Association for Higher Education, which represents 8,700 college educators and administrators. "It's one of those things that we have averted our eyes from and that's unacceptable--particularly now that affirmative action has been threatened."

A 'Catch-22'

But Linda Chavez, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said affirmative action may well be the cause of high noncompletion rates. "You have students being admitted to programs where they can't possibly compete because they don't have the preparation," she said.

Nine years ago, the report suggests, an 18- to 24-year-old student from the top economic quartile was four times more likely than a student from the lowest economic stratum to earn a four-year degree. By 1994, however, the students from the most affluent group were 10 times more likely to get a degree.

A primary factor behind both high attrition rates and the growing disparities in completion between well-to-do and poor students is the increasing cost of tuition, Mr. Barton writes. The average cost for tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year institutions rose from $2,577 in 1976-77 to $10,315 in 1995-96.

The report says the higher costs come as the gap between a college graduate's earnings and those of a worker with only a high school diploma is wider than ever. "The 'Catch-22' is that as college becomes harder to finance it becomes ever more necessary to go, because those who do not are faring worse than ever in the labor market," Mr. Barton writes.

Part of the problem, he said, is a growing shortfall in public funding for colleges and universities. Since 1979, for example, all states have seen reductions in the proportions of tax money spent on higher education and various forms of student assistance. Meanwhile, the average size of federal Pell Grants, which help defray tuition for low-income students, has remained the same since the late 1970s.

But before students go on to college, they must first finish high school. And the report notes that the proportion of young adults with a high school diploma has barely budged in two decades, hovering around the 86 percent mark. Statistics also show that disparities in educational achievement begin well before college.

Academic standards that set down what all students should know and do in school may help whittle away at some of those inequities, Mr. Barton writes.

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