How To Reverse Higher Ed’s Dropout Crisis?

Thought leaders from the government, academia and business today called for an improvement in college completion rates. At stake, they said, is Americans’ ability to remain competitive in a global economy.

The statistics are grim: Only about 56 percent of students enrolling at four-year colleges in America today graduate within six years. For Hispanic students, that figure is 49 percent, and for black students, it’s 42 percent. At community colleges, fewer than 30 percent of those who start as full-time students graduate with an associate’s degree in three years.

"We need to do more in the area of college completion," Robert Shireman, deputy undersecretary for the Education Department, said at a National Journal LIVE forum on Capitol Hill this morning. Shireman, a veteran of higher education, oversees the department’s effort to help Americans pay for college and develop strategies to increase college completion, among other initiatives.

Some critics argue that abysmal graduation rates are reflections of a system designed for mass production, not creating learned people. "There is no rationale for having lecture sections with a thousand people," said Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla. Instead, Shugart argued, college leaders need to rethink the value of students. They’re "unique human beings," not "raw material," he said.

Another part of the problem is disagreement over the data. There is no consensus over how best to measure college completion rates. The most widely used formula in four-year colleges is the percentage of full-time students who graduate within six years. Higher education stakeholders, however, are vexed by how to capture difficult variables such as transfer students.

Still, "bad data is no excuse not to do better," said Hilary Pennington, director of education, post-secondary success and special initiatives at the Gates Foundation. David Leonhardt, a business columnist for the New York Times, also posited that flawed measurements should not allow leaders to ignore the problem.

Kevin Carey, policy director at the Education Sector and an expert on higher education, argued that the urgency surrounding the college completion problem needs to be greater. Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks about the high school dropout crisis all the time, Carey said, but the dropout crisis facing higher education doesn’t get the same attention.

Leaders of post-secondary institutions, nonprofits and the private sector are experimenting with ways to address the retention problem.

Early college credit is one approach. In several hundred high schools around the country, students have the opportunity to simultaneously complete high school and earn post-secondary credit; they can earn an associate’s degree or work two years toward a bachelor’s tuition-free.

Starfish Retention Solutions of Arlington, Va., sells software to help mitigate the dropout phenomenon. The software purports to help identify at-risk students in real time and connect those students to support resources by drawing information from an institution’s student management system.

One of the most powerful solutions, Shireman suggested, is very simple: paying attention. Colleges need to monitor whether students are coming back for the second semester, or the second year, and take follow-up action, he added.

However, Shireman won’t be leading the administration’s college completion initiatives much longer. He’ll be returning to California this summer, and James Kvaal, who currently works at the White House National Economic Council, will take his place.

When the administration announced on May 18 that Shireman would be leaving, Wall Street responded. Stocks of 10 publicly traded higher education companies rose between 1 percent and 13 percent, with analysts speculating that Shireman’s departure might be beneficial for the higher education’s private sector.

"I thought that leaving would help spur the economy," joked Shireman.

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