Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions

The release today of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute report deserves the attention of educators for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps foremost among them is the attention it brings to the need for a felt responsibility by boards and administrators to improve retention and graduation rates of all students, Hispanic and African American as well as White and Asian.  But certainly a secondary reason, unexplored by the UCLA study, for attending to this report is its implications for for-profit colleges and universities which disproportionately enroll students with characteristics that this report identifies with failure to complete a degree.

All of us are aware of the challenge that the U.S. has in raising its percentage of adult college graduates; the percentage stands at little more than 27%.  Of particular concern should be the very low rate of college graduation of Hispanics; for those between 25 and 29, the report notes that the graduation rate is just 12%.  While the 19% rate for African Americans is higher, like the record for Hispanics, both are well below the 37% rate for Whites.  The growing number of Hispanics in the U.S. makes their very low graduation rate a particular source of concern for our prosperity.

The report’s fundamental purpose is to challenge higher education to, not just put into perspective the issues associated with raising the graduation rates of different demographic groups, e.g., Hispanic males, but to set goals based on the characteristics of the various demographic groups.  In order to do so, however, university boards must maintain consistent attention to a university’s retention and graduation rates by setting goals at the board level and holding university administrators responsible for those goals.  With so many complex issues being addressed by our universities, it is very tough for boards to maintain that focus with a felt responsibility at its level, but boards have that responsibility, and they should seize it with laser-focus consistency in light of this new research.

In addition to the attention that the UCLA report brings to retention and graduation, it has unexplored implications for the growing proportion of higher education represented  by the for-profit sector.  For-profit institutions have been castigated for their low rates of graduation, but the implication of the UCLA report is to consider the expected graduation rates for these institutions based on the characteristics of their students.  Those characteristics include several that the UCLA report identifies as producing lower graduation rates.

For-profit colleges and universities disproportionately enroll more African Americans, more students who have transferred from other colleges, more students whose education has been disrupted, etc.  All of these characteristics are associated with lower graduation rates.  That should not absolve for-profit institutions from their responsibility to raise graduation rates, but it should cause all of us to put into context the expectations we have for a sector of higher education that is serving some of the most challenging students from the perspective of expected graduation rate.

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