Fixing the College Degree Attainment Problem

Fixing the College Degree Attainment Problem


Millions of high school students recently made their final decisions on where they want to spend their college years.

Sadly, only 59% of them are likely to graduate from the school they start at within six years. And completion rates for lower-income students, especially blacks and Hispanics, are about 20 percentage points lower than for upper-and-middle-income white students.

Colleges owe it to the students they accept to do a better job. They need to fulfill the implied promise they made that the student will attain a degree.

To be sure, some students aren’t ready for college, either educationally or emotionally. But when they and their parents take on a load of debt, the college has an obligation. It should deliver an outcome – not just an opportunity. For-profit trade schools are justifiably criticized for accepting unqualified students and failing to give them marketable skills. But non-profit colleges and state-funded institutions shouldn’t duck their responsibility to make sure students get a degree.

President Obama promised when he took office that the U.S. would regain its ranking as No. 1 in proportion of college graduates. At the time it was 12th. Since then it has slipped to 14th. While 44% of white Americans have college degrees, just 20% of Hispanics and 28% of blacks have post-secondary degrees.

The public is increasingly aware that degree attainment is a problem. The U.S. Department of Education College Navigator database has started rating colleges by their graduation rates. It has proposed tying financial aid to attainment among other measures. Colleges and universities need to deal with the issue.

There are many reasons that students leave college without a degree. But one surprising one is the sheer difficulty of navigating graduation requirements. To attain a degree, students may have to complete the following: a certain number of courses in a major (including required courses); distributions of courses across subject categories; core introductory courses and high level seminars.

They often need to meet language, science and math requirements. Some programs give credit for certain advanced-placement-test scores. Some eliminate language requirements for students who aren’t native-English speakers. Graduation isn’t just a matter of earning a 2.0 grade-point average in a required number of credit hours--it has become a maze to navigate.

Meeting all the requirements can be tricky for students who start out with one academic plan and then realize sophomore year that they really don’t want to major in say, archaeology. Failing or dropping a course can be a big problem. Taking a semester abroad where course choices are limited complicates the quest even more. Some students discover at the beginning of their senior year that a course they need for graduation won’t be offered that year. That can lead to frustration, not to mention higher costs and loans as a four-year degree turns into five years or, for many people, six or more years.

For a college freshman, the wealth of choices and freedom to choose among them can be overwhelming. After four years of proceeding in lockstep through a set high school curriculum, an incoming freshman suddenly confronts an online course catalog with dozens of majors and thousands of individual courses.

Almost all colleges provide advisors to help students find their way. But they are often overwhelmed at the start of each semester when everyone is registering for classes. They may miss signs of trouble when students start to struggle.

Make Better Choices

Software programs can make sense of the complexity. Just as tax software eases the task of filling out Form 1040, course navigation software can ease the task of filling out an academic requirement. It can analyze a student’s academic record and predict whether he or she is likely to do well in a class or fail. For many students, it is more comfortable to have a computer program tell them that they aren’t ready to take astrophysics than it is to hear the prediction from a human counselor.

Based on the student’s own transcript and the performance of thousands of other students, predictive analytics software can even forecast the grade that a student is likely to get in a particular course. It can recommend particular courses, much the way Netflix or Amazon make recommendations.

This is not to say that technology by itself is a solution to every problem. Technology needs to augment and support the teachers and the students, to give them tools and insight needed to make better decisions. Used in this manner, technology can be an incredibly helpful discovery tool to illuminate options that may not have been thought of previously.

Austin Peay State University, a large state college in Clarksville, Tenn., is a great example. The University developed a program that helps students pick their courses. College president Timothy Hall testified in U.S. Senate hearings last fall that the program “uses predictive analytics to guide students' course selection in a way that not only enhances their rate of academic success but also the timely completion of their degree.”

In use since 2011, he said it has contributed to a 25 percent increase in graduation rates at Austin Peay since 2008. Moreover, the achievement gap between low income and minority students and other students “is being dramatically narrowed where students build schedules using the courses recommended…” he testified.

Different colleges may develop their own software, or buy web-based tools. For example, Lone Star College in Texas is working hard to build out their vision of an Educational Positioning System.

College students, particularly lower-income students who may be the first in their families to attend college, need every bit of support they can get to attain a degree. It is heartbreaking to see students work hard to achieve college admission and then fail to get the benefits of better job opportunities and lifetime higher incomes because they never graduate. It is especially sad when they are saddled with student loans taken on with high hopes.

Technology-based college navigation systems can make a significant improvement in graduation attainment rates. Every college should be implementing them.

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