Pushing public colleges and universities to increase graduation rates has become a key objective for President Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown, among others, as they seek to hold higher education institutions more accountable.
Encouraging students to get their degrees in four years rather than five or six — and, for community college students, in two years rather than three or four — will not only reduce tuition bills but free space for more students to enroll, many of these advocates say.
But a growing chorus of opposition argues that graduation rates by themselves may not accurately measure campus performance and that using the rates to determine allocation of federal and state funds would be especially troublesome.
Critics also contend that the increasing focus on timely degrees overlooks the reality that in a system such as the California State University, the nation's largest, many students are older, have jobs and families and are hard pressed to graduate "on time."
Nationally, only 19% of full-time students earn a bachelor's degree in four years at most public universities and only 36% at highly rated flagship research institutions, according to a recent report by the nonprofit group Complete College America. The cost to students is about $22,826 for every extra year at a public four-year school, according to the report, called Four-Year Myth.
Many students are taking fewer units — typically 12 credit hours per term rather than 15 — than they need to graduate in four years. And many are unfocused in their college studies and don't adhere to a structured plan, said Stan Jones, president of the Indianapolis-based advocacy group.
"We wouldn't expect everybody to graduate in four years but we would expect half of them to, and we're nowhere close to that," Jones said. "Evidence is that the longer students stay in school the less likely they are to graduate, so we're not doing students a favor" by maintaining the status quo.
President Obama has proposed a ratings plan — that includes graduation data, among other factors — to provide families with a tool to compare colleges.
In California, recent legislation directs the University of California to report and improve system-wide four-year graduation rates and Cal State to do the same with four and six-year rates.
The state budget also requires both systems to project expenditures for the next three years and to set graduation rates, enrollment, retention and other targets that would inform funding and policy decisions.
At Cal State, about 17.8% of freshmen who started in 2009 graduated in four years. The system is on track to improve its six-year graduate rate to 54% in 2015 and will soon announce longer-term goals that will include both four- and six-year rates, said spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp.
One problem, said Uhlenkamp, is that many majors, particularly engineering and architecture, require more than 120 credit hours for a degree, meaning students will be in school longer than four years. The system is working to bring down unit requirements.
The legislation and comments from government leaders are frustrating for some, including Cal State East Bay English professor Susan Gubernat, who says that because tuition and fees have increased, many of her students must work and are taking less than a full load of units.
"They're not loafing or taking courses they don't need or avoiding maturity, all those stereotypes," said Gubernat, who is secretary of the Cal State Academic Senate. "They're not taking their time deliberately. All they do is juggle, so to define success by how quickly they move through the system seems a misunderstanding of success."
The need for remedial classes stymies many Cal State students as well as community college students seeking to transfer, she said. And despite an upturn in state funding after years of recession-forced cuts, the course sections, tenured faculty and advising needed to enable students to move more quickly still lag.
Gubernat said she fears that education may be moving toward a corporate model, where the bottom line relies on short-term gains and losses, and students are seen as widgets to be turned out efficiently. Brown, for example, has urged more online classes — some developed by for-profit firms — as a quick and less-costly fix.
"We've sort of given up on the idea of valuing the experience of college that helps someone determine who they want to be and how they want to contribute to society," Gubernat said.
Using graduation rates to calculate college performance should be done with caution, if at all, and ought to consider the mission of the institution, said Daniel Hurley, associate vice president for government relations and state policy at the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities.
Graduation rates in themselves won't capture the quality of education a student receives and may tempt some schools to only admit those they think would help boost rates, Hurley said.
He said many states have adopted more useful yardsticks, such as the number of degree holders a college produces and the types of degrees awarded, such as those that meet workforce needs.
"In a system like Cal State we should be looking at rewarding an institution in a way that complements the school's social demographic and mission," he said.