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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Federal Opinion

College-Ready... and Then?

By Rick Hess — March 18, 2010 3 min read
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For all my concerns about No Child Left Behind’s grandiose ambitions and misguided hyper-prescriptiveness, its profound contribution was the wealth of information that’s now available on graduation rates and student achievement. Given that, it’s striking that Uncle Sam spends vastly more on higher education than K-12 but that higher ed now desperately lags when it comes to even minimal, user-friendly transparency.

If students or parents want to know how graduates from this college or that one fare, or even where students are more likely to graduate, it’s ridiculously hard to find good information. Fortunately, a handful of analysts have taken up this challenge. In the most recent such effort, my colleagues Andrew Kelly and Mark Schneider, along with Education Sector’s inimitable Kevin Carey, today released “Rising to the Challenge: Hispanic Graduation Rates as a National Priority.”

The report uses National Center for Education Statistics data to shine a bright light on Hispanic college completion. The findings are pretty dismal. Nationally, just 51 percent of Hispanic students graduate in six years. That means, of every two Hispanic students who head off to a four-year college this fall, just one will earn a diploma by June 2016. Moreover, the authors report that there is no evidence that schools federally designated as “Hispanic-Serving Institutions” are doing any better than other institutions at graduating their Hispanic students, and they do a worse job of graduating their white students.

Critically, for those who imagine the challenge of Hispanic completion is primarily one of “undermatching” (in which poor and minority students attend less selective colleges than they probably should), there is enormous variation in completion rates across schools with similar admissions criteria. Among schools deemed “competitive” by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, for instance, the ten highest-performing schools routinely graduate more than three times as many of their Hispanic students than the ten lowest-performing schools. This means it is possible for more higher ed institutions to do a better job. Parents, teachers, and guidance counselors should be aware of who’s getting the job done when advising high school grads about which college to attend.

The question of Hispanic students is particularly intriguing because efforts to meet the needs of first-generation immigrants and English language learners have, in my experience, generally been pursued via special programs and designated officials grafted onto colleges with too much attention to identity politics. Rare is the institution that has used the new challenges of this population as an opportunity to really rethink how it supports and serves students with diverse needs and strengths. And yet the authors point out that the institutions that seem to fare best are not those that fetishize services for Hispanic students in isolation but those that emphasize retention and completion for all students.

Now, I don’t want to put too much stock in mechanical renderings of graduation rates. After all, colleges can boost their numbers by dropping standards or giving diplomas away like candy. If students decide college isn’t for them or can’t cut it, I don’t think colleges should be expected to hound them or carry them through. But I think the numbers here show we’re pretty far away from that being the central problem. Right now, the challenge is getting this information out and ensuring that institutions, students, and educators--and, especially public institutions, legislators, and voters--are doing what they should to help get these kids over the finish line.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.