College Graduation Rates Stagnate, Despite More Students


More first-time, full-time students are enrolling in college, and more of these students are receiving financial aid, but the percentage of students graduating on time has remained roughly the same.

These findings are contained in a new annual federal report on postsecondary enrollment and graduation rates released last week.

The report – titled Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2008; Graduation Rates, 2002 and 2005 Cohorts; and Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2008 – is from the National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the Institute for Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

But the numbers included in the report are just a one-time survey.  To do any comparative analysis, one has to consult last year’s report also and search for any upticks and downturns.

The new report shows that in 2008 there were 19.6 million first-time, full-time students enrolled in Title IV institutions – institutions that can participate in the federal student assistant programs – up  from 18.7 million the year before.

According to the report, the graduation rate at Title IV colleges in 2008 was 55.9 percent, down slightly from 56.1 percent in 2007. The graduation rate includes the number of full-time, first-time students completed four-, two- and less-than-two-year programs at public, private and for-profit postsecondary institutions.

The data only examines the rates of cohorts that started in four-year programs in 2002 and two-year or less programs in 2005, since 2008 – the year of focus in the report – marks the end of periods that are 150 percent of the ideal completion time.

In other words,  the student graduated mostly before the recent initiatives and measures aimed at improving college completion rates – a key goal of the Obama Administration and major foundations of private philanthropy.  For those who are looking for improvements amid all the clamor about the need to graduate more of America’s youths from college, the relevant point is it may still be a few years before a fuller and more accurate assessment of the comprehensive impact of these initiatives can be done using NCES data from a more long-term and national perspective.

It’s also important to consider how much lower the rates might be without some of these initiatives in place.

America’s relatively stagnant graduation rates are part of a larger, longer trend that has plagued the landscape of American higher education for several decades, as lamented in a recent treatise on the subject titled Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities.

College completion advocates say the latest figures show that higher education officials need to change their way of thinking to serve today’s college-enrolled youths, who differ in many ways from what is often thought of as a “traditional” college student.

“Clearly, more of the same will not improve graduation rates,” said Tom Sugar, senior vice president for Complete College America, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works with states to improve college completion rates.

He said colleges need to think about better ways to serve youths who struggle to balance work and school in an era of ever-rising tuition costs, and who, in many cases, already are raising children of their own.

Among the various things colleges can do to improve their graduation rates, Sugar said, are offering programs with schedules that are more predictable over time, and “mainstreaming” into credit-bearing courses youths who currently take remedial courses because they missed the cutoff score.

“New thinking. New models,” Sugar said of what’s needed in postsecondary education. “Time is money. Obviously it costs more to go longer.”

The most significant shift in graduation rates from 2007 to 2008 took place at private, for-profit four-year institutions, which saw a significant drop in their graduation rates, from 43.7 to 38.1 percent, according to the report.

Harris Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association, a trade organization for private, for-profit institutions, says those numbers aren’t very inferential or insightful because private, for-profit colleges serve a lot of students that fall outside the definition of first-time and full-time students.

“That’s not the typical student in our sector,” Miller said.

There were also some significant changes in completion rates among various ethnic groups, but the report urges caution in drawing any conclusions from that, because the feds have put a new optional ethnic category in their criteria for people who belong to “two or more races,” even though there isn’t much of a scientific foundation for the notion of race in the first place.

“As a result of these optional reporting categories, caution should be exercised when drawing conclusions from the data presented,” the report states.

Another table of interest to many in the college access and completion movement is Table 8, which shows the percentage of students receiving financial aid, although on last year’s report this was Table 7.

The total percentage of students receiving financial aid in the 2007-2008 academic year was 76.4, up significantly from 73.3 in the previous year (Table 8 in this year’s report, Table 7 in last year’s).

“It’s to be expected because of the economy,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert, president of MK Consulting Inc. and publisher of the FinAid and FastWeb web sites.

He said because of ongoing problems with Americans losing jobs and homes and finding it difficult to secure loans, more and more are returning to school to get degrees to improve their chances of getting hired. And they need financial aid to do so.


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