Diverse Conversations: Higher Accountability for College Dropout Rates

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by Matthew Lynch

There are a lot of metrics in place that gauge the effectiveness of P-12 schooling in the U.S. and shine a particularly bright light on public schools, particularly when they are failing students. Dropout rates are just one of the factors taken into account when these numbers are calculated and tend to weigh heavily on the schools and districts who have low percentages. The same does not seem to be true once the high school years pass though. Compared to P-12 institutions, colleges and universities seemingly get a pass when it comes to dropout rates — perhaps because in the past, higher education was considered more of a privilege and less of a right. A college dropout was simply walking away from the assumed higher quality of life that came with the degree, but still had opportunity to excel without it.

That’s not the case anymore. As of 2013, 17.5 million students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. More than ever, colleges and universities have a responsibility to not simply admit students, but ensure they are guided properly to graduation. In other words, institutions of higher education should not be able to just take their student’s money and say “good luck.” They should provide the tools necessary for students to successfully achieve a college education and anticipate the issues that could prevent that.

Authors Ben Miller and Phuong Ly discussed the issue of the U.S. colleges with the worst graduation rates in their book College Dropout Factories. Within the pages, the authors encouraged educators at all levels to acknowledge that colleges and universities should share responsibility for successful or failing graduation rates, and that the institutions with the worst rates should be shut down. Perhaps the most terrifying suggestion in the book (for colleges and universities) was that public institutions with low graduation rates would be subjected to reduced state funding.

The book was written based on findings from Washington Monthly that ranked the U.S. schools with the lowest six-year graduation rates among colleges and universities, including public ones like the University of the District of Columbia (8 percent), Haskell Indian Nations University (9 percent), Oglala Lakota College (11 percent), Texas Southern University (13 percent) and Chicago State University (13 percent). These stats were published in 2010, so they are not the most current available but a quick scan of the University of the District Columbia’s official page shows graduation rate numbers through the end of the 2003–2004 school year. The past nine years are nowhere to be found. The school boasts 51.2 percent underrepresented minorities in the study body, including 47 percent that are Black. But what good are those numbers if these students are not actually benefitting from their time in college because they receive no degree?

In the case of Chicago State University, the latest statistics show some improvement from the 2010 ones. The six-year graduation rate is up to 21 percent, but the transfer-out rate is nearly 30 percent. The school has 92 percent underrepresented minorities that attend — 86 percent who are Black and 70 percent who are female — but again, what good does any of that do if these traditionally disadvantaged students are not graduating?

In all cases of college dropout factories, the P-12 institutions chalk up a victory on their end. They graduated the students and also saw them accepted into a college. What happens after that is between the students and their higher education choices.

This, to me, is a problem. The accountability for student success extends beyond the years that they are in P-12 classrooms. Graduation from high school, and acceptance into college, should never be the final goal of P-12 educators. That is not a victory. That is only halftime.

As far as the colleges and universities are concerned, higher accountability should be demanded from educators, students, parents and really any Americans that want the best economy and highest-educated population. Public institutions, in particular, should be subject to restructuring or take over if dropout rates are too high. The lack of delivery on the college degree dream at many of these schools is appalling, frankly, and has gone on long enough.

What do you think an accountability system for colleges should look like when it comes to dropout rates?

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One Response to Diverse Conversations: Higher Accountability for College Dropout Rates

  1. I agree with Mr. Lynch’s overview and recommendation that Higher Education institutions should take responsibility for graduating the students they admit. Although complex on the surface, the components to increase graduation rates have existed for several decades. Researchers such as Tinto, Pascarella, Astin, and many others have examined the factors that contribute to student persistence and success at both two-year and four-year institutions. Two of the biggest issues that postsecondary institutions face at this juncture is developing and assessing effective programs that help students succeed and doing so with state resources shrinking almost at an annual rate for many state institutions.

    Mr. Lynch will be glad to know that there is a push from both the federal and state level to implement performance-based budgeting for state institutions and retention and graduation rates are two of the metrics that will be used to base current and future funding. The jury is still out regarding these initiatives given that they are still relatively new. Will this improve retention and graduation rates or will this cause many state institutions to become increasingly ‘selective’ in terms of which students will be admitted? This is already happening at some institutions and even HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions are not immune to these potential policy-making decisions. I believe that those institutions who conduct institutional audits to assess overall effectiveness in addressing student success will be more proactive and successful in improving their respective graduation rates for the students they serve. It is also important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in turning around low retention and graduation rates. With these challenges can arise opportunities for all institutions to be more accountable to demonstrate that student success is a priority through their actions.

    Jerald L Henderson, PhD
    February 20, 2014 at 12:09 pm

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