Fewer than six out of 10 students finish college within six years, and higher education institutions could do much more to improve such completion rates, according to a report released last week.
“One Step from the Finish Line: Higher College-Graduation Rates are Within Our Reach” and “Choosing to Improve: Voices from Colleges and Universities with Better Graduation Rates” are available online from The Education Trust. ()
The report from the Education Trust, a Washington-based policy group, compares institutions with similar resources and student populations. It concludes that while several factors such as the academic preparation of the students, the availability of financial aid, and the amount of spending on instruction and student advising, play crucial roles in graduation rates, universities also need to identify and put in place practices that have made a difference in other, similar institutions.
Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Education Trust, said that when her group considered whether colleges that are roughly similar and serve roughly the same kind of students had similar graduation rates, “the answer was absolutely not.”
“Some do a lot better; some have twice the graduation rates as others; some stand out for their success in working with African-American or Latino students,” she said during a conference call.
Interactive Web Site
The study grouped “similar” institutions based on estimated median SAT scores for the most recent freshman class, admissions selectivity, enrollment, financial resources, and the percentage of students from low-income families, among other factors, and found that some consistently outperformed their peers.
The groupings included categories such as “elite private institutions” and “public master’s-granting institutions.” Each institution’s rate was based on how many members of its entering class of 1997 finished within six years.
The Education Trust also unveiled an interactive Web site, www.collegeresults.org, that allows users to compare graduation rates at a certain university or college to those of similar institutions. The database, which includes 1,400 private and public four-year U.S. colleges, allows users to study graduation rates broken down by students’ race, ethnicity, and gender. Information used for the database comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s Graduation Rate Survey released last year.
The Jan. 18 report cites as an example Alcorn State University in Mississippi, a historically black institution that has a six-year graduation rate of 47.9 percent, an average of 14.6 percentage points higher than for similar institutions.
Malvin Williams, the vice president for academic affairs at Alcorn State, said that his institution had improved its graduation rate by increasing its focus on freshmen. The university is in one of the state’s poorest areas, and 97 percent of its students receive financial aid, he said.
After realizing 20 years ago that Alcorn State was retaining fewer than 50 percent of its freshmen, Mr. Williams said, the university put together a research team that studied how other colleges retained and promoted students. The result was the creation of the College for Excellence, a concentrated two-year program that freshmen and sophomores at Alcorn State must complete before being admitted to a major program. Each student is given a program adviser who offers social and academic support, in addition to a faculty adviser.
The course enrollment for most freshman and sophomore classes at the university was reduced to fewer than 25 students, Mr. Williams said.
Alcorn State now retains around 75 percent of its freshmen through the sophomore year. And all the changes came at a cost of about $200,000 per year. “It was one of the best decisions we ever made,” Mr. Williams said.
Minority Students Lag
The Education Trust report cites glaring disparities in the graduation rates for black, Latino, and Native American students compared with their white and Asian peers.
“These are the most academically prepared minority students our education system produces, and yet when they go to college, they are not likely to get their degree on time,” the report says.
Overall, it says, of the more than 1 million first-time degree-seeking students who start at four-year colleges each year, hundreds of thousands do not earn the degrees “they want, work for, pay for, and truly need.”
Arellana Cordero, who entered the University of New Mexico as a freshman in 1993, was one such student who wandered away from her path to a degree.
Ms. Cordero, who was class president and an honor student in high school, appeared marked for success at college. But after five years at the university, she said, she began to feel her educational career had gone astray, and she doubted if she would ever get a degree. Then she got married, started a construction business with her husband, and quit the university just 15 credits shy of a degree.
Years later, Ms. Cordero said, she decided to go back to school, but faced difficulties in explaining her position to university officials. She finally found help from the university’s Graduation Project, a program started in 1996 to track down students who had quit college.
Ms. Cordero, who earned a business degree in 2004, said going back for it was not a “necessary priority for furthering my career, but I personally needed to complete it.”
The University of New Mexico project has so far tracked down nearly 1,800 students, of whom 1,100 have earned degrees. The program is cited by the Education Trust in another report released last week to show that colleges that work to improve their graduation rates have had success.
“Graduation-rate gains are very possible, when institutions decide to pursue them,” that report says.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Report Faults Colleges on Completion Rates