Boosting Graduation Rates

The old adage about the weather—everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it—seems to apply to college graduation rates. Much is written about this (presumed) problem, but graduation rates remain low, especially at community colleges.

A new paper published by Mark Schneider and Lu Michelle Yin of the American Enterprise Institute not only talks about graduation rates (specifically at community colleges), but suggests five ways that schools could raise their graduation rates. The study also forecasts the economic gains for students and states if community colleges succeeded in cutting their dropout rates in half.

The ideas for improving student success, while not brand new or revolutionary, are worth examining. I’m far more skeptical about the purported economic gains, however, as I will discuss below.

First of all, graduation rates at community colleges are very low at most schools. Schneider and Yin report that the three-year graduation rate for community colleges averages in the low-20 percent range. Some schools have even been singled out for public ridicule. The authors mention that billboards along highways near Dallas say that the Dallas County Community College District has an 8 percent graduation rate and pointedly ask, “Is that fair to the students?”

We would expect community colleges to have relatively low graduation rates because many of the students are poorly prepared for academic work and often have to hold down jobs to support themselves and even a family as well. Even so, those low rates could be improved substantially. Schneider and Yin advance five changes that community college leaders could make toward that end.

Streamline remedial programs. A high percentage of community college students have to take non-credit remedial courses in English and math before they’re eligible to start their regular courses, slowing down their progress. Unfortunately, the paper does not say just how to streamline remediation. I have long thought it questionable that students who have suffered from many years of neglect in their K-12 years can “catch up” in one semester; how can we “streamline” that further and still make any essential academic progress? Let’s go on.

Restructure traditional scheduling. The old-fashioned college schedule of classes during the day doesn’t work very well for many community college students. The authors advocate more flexibility. Yes, bankers don’t always keep “bankers’ hours” any more, and community colleges certainly should not. If schedules were more consumer friendly, more students would probably graduate.

Online courses.  Some community colleges have started to offer online courses and while they aren’t ideal for every student, for many they seem to be preferable. The authors mention Rio Salado College in Arizona, which has more than five hundred online courses and some 35,000 students from around the country taking them.

Competency-based education. Instead of following the traditional approach of covering the material in the space of a defined semester, some schools (including Western Governors University) have adopted something different—allowing students to progress at their own pace, moving from easier to more advanced concepts after they’ve demonstrated comprehension. Valencia College in Florida has taken that path and now has a 40 percent graduation rate.

For-profit institutions.  There is nothing like the prospect of making money to get people to think of new and better ways of doing things. For-profit colleges, the authors write, “embody a host of ideas that could alter community colleges.” For example, for-profits can work with and train community college faculty to optimize their instruction and measure student learning outcomes.

Let a thousand flowers bloom. Community colleges ought to explore those and any other ideas for delivering the education their students need. In fact, if they are effective, they’ll probably attract many students who might otherwise have assumed that they wanted to go to a four-year college. The competition would be healthy.

The part of the paper that I’m less impressed with is its forecast for substantial economic gains if community colleges increase graduation rates. The authors have calculated the anticipated gains in salary for workers who complete their degrees and anticipated tax revenue gains for the states where they live. Their calculations are based on the “wage premium” that holders of associate’s degrees have, on average, over workers with only high school diplomas.

The trouble with that assumption, as I have often noted, is that those averages don’t necessarily tell us what will happen at the margin. The fact that degree holders on average earn more money than high school graduates does not ensure that everyone who now obtains an associate’s degree will get a higher paying job.

Schneider and Yin write that “additional graduates would likely find a receptive market for their additional skills.” Maybe, but does the completion of the degree necessarily mean “additional skills?” We know that completing a four-year degree doesn’t necessarily mean that; we also know that many students who have bachelor’s degrees to their name are employed in jobs that don’t call for any academic training.

The implicit assumption behind the paper’s calculations on higher earnings is that there will be higher-paying jobs available for those students who graduate. But one thing we should have learned from recent experience is that merely because more people are reaching a higher “educational attainment” level does not mean that the labor market will create the “good” jobs those individuals want. 

By all means, let’s encourage community colleges to improve themselves. Doing that may lead to higher graduation rates. But let’s not assume that that all of the graduates will be able to land higher paying jobs.