The Graduation Hammer

There’s an old statement that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That is, the tool takes over—changing your goal and your mindset to something different from what you originally intended.

Graduation rates are the latest “hammer” in higher education. Some concern about low graduation rates is appropriate, of course. Only about 58 percent of all college freshmen in the country graduate in six years. For a lot of those students, college is a waste of time and money—including taxpayer money.

But once administrators start focusing on a measurement of success such as graduation rates—or the broader term “degree production”—they run into a moral hazard, pressure to game their actions in a way that reduces the validity of the measurement.

For example, one way to boost rates is to make graduation easier. Grade inflation can be the result, and grade inflation already has been documented in North Carolina and elsewhere. Some people believe that it has devalued many college degrees.

Under both the current president, Tom Ross, and his predecessor, Erskine Bowles, the University of North Carolina has been very explicit about increasing “production.” A report to the UNC Board of Governors  (Nov. 2010) on a plan to link enrollment funding to performance said, “The national mood for higher education has, as has UNC’s, shifted to student success and degree production along with expanding access. The production of undergraduate degrees will play a larger and larger role as this model is developed and implemented.”

The emphasis on raising graduation rates has caused one positive development. Under UNC president Erskine Bowles, the system began increasing minimum academic standards for entering any UNC school, designed to ensure that students are at least capable of doing academic work. (The minimum SAT score for the fall of 2013 is 800 for critical reading and math combined; unfortunately, this figure is still lower than “college-ready.”)

Other efforts are more worrisome. For example, UNC now sponsors “academic boot camps” at four schools, and a summer program for contingently admitted students at another. And it has beefed up its “academic counseling.”  These are essentially remedial or “handholding” programs that attempt to make up for poor preparation or poor work habits.

Remedial classes belong primarily in community colleges, not four-year colleges, where the cost of teaching a student is three times as high. Yet the university shows no intention of reducing its remedial classes.

The latest effort to boost degree production focuses on getting transfer students to obtain a diploma more quickly and on bringing back students who have dropped out of college. Tom Ross recently told the UNC Board of Governors that one of his top priorities is to “increase graduation rates among community college transfers, individuals with some college credit, and those seeking to earn a new or different degree.”

This emphasis on transfers is a mixed bag. Administrators may have been searching for easy fixes, and they learned that transfer students take longer to graduate than those who have persisted at one school. That fact led to a front-page story in the Triangle Business Journal titled “Transfers Tug Down Grad Rates for UNC.”

Specifically, a UNC General Administration report for the Board of Governors in August, which analyzed the records of transfer students, found that only 64 percent of transfer students (who come mostly from community colleges) graduate four years later. This figure is lower than the 88 percent graduation rate for students who are starting their junior year after two years at the same institution. (The report is appendix item K in the August 2012 pre-meeting materials.)

On the other hand, an administrator at a UNC university has said informally that transfer students are viewed as more serious and more committed students than the average freshman. And former North Carolina Central chancellor Charles Nelms said that he wanted to boost the number of transfer students at NCCU.

Certainly, if students are not fully prepared for the rigors of university academics, starting their college education at a community college is a less costly and less wasteful option.

And improving transfer students’ graduation rates may not be all that difficult. The UNC study showed that the students who have the most trouble finishing quickly are those who haven’t declared a major because they can get sidetracked. Modest improvements in advising could get students to choose majors earlier so that they can keep their eyes on the prize of earning a degree.

The university could also help those students—as well as non-transfers—by making sure that the courses required for their major are taught frequently enough to enable them to progress to a diploma.

Another factor that holds down transfer students’ graduation rate is failure to have an associate’s degree when they start at a UNC school. Thus, more careful admissions standards may be appropriate. Unless a student shows exceptional ability, students transferring from community college should complete the associate’s degree program before moving to UNC. Tougher requirements may fly in the face of the efforts to streamline transfers, but they make sure that students are ready to move to a university.

At the same time, administrators should avoid blind devotion to “the hammer.”

As Pope Center writers have argued before, graduation rates often tell more about students than about the schools themselves. “Whether a student graduates and benefits from the educational experience is up to that individual, not the institution,” wrote George Leef and Duke Cheston last year. Low graduation rates suggest that too many students are unrealistic about their interest in college, and their college probably has been too lenient in letting some of them in.

Indeed, the current emphasis on degree production may be harming students. It was spurred partly by evidence that some other nations are graduating a higher percentage of their young people than the United States is—a dubious rationale for forcing many young people into college when they don’t want to be there. It was nurtured by misinformation about how many college graduates are needed for future jobs, and it was fueled by financial support from the Lumina Foundation, a well-funded organization that is committed to increasing the number of college degrees.

The country doesn’t “need” as many college graduates as Lumina and President Obama are pushing for, and UNC doesn’t “need” to reach a set goal of graduates. What the nation—and North Carolinians—need is the opportunity for each individual to pursue his or her career goals based on careful self-assessment and financial realities—whether they contribute to “degree production” or not.