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States, U.S. must boost graduation rates, Duncan says in slamming college costs

Education secretary urges more focus on college graduation

The nation's colleges are too costly and students frequently are not getting their money's worth, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Monday, emphasizing that states and the federal government must do more to ensure that students complete their degrees.

The remarks came during a speech laying out Duncan's vision for higher education and the policy priorities in President Obama's final 18 months in office.

California and other states, Duncan said, must begin to invest more in higher education and focus more on innovative programs that increase student outcomes and success -- especially for low-income and otherwise  disadvantaged students.

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"Make no mistake: Our administration will not let up on our efforts to help more students pay for college, to break the upward cycle of cost  and to crack down on bad actors that take advantage of students," Duncan said in remarks at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"But as a nation, we must go further. We must reset the incentives that underpin the system so the focus is on the outcome that matters -- completing a quality degree at a reasonable cost. And we must have the courage to embrace innovations that meet the needs of a student body that has changed enormously in recent years."

The focus on cost and accountability already has been embraced in California, where a multi-year budget plan supported by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature has increased funding for the University of California, Cal State and community college systems, with the expectation of stable tuition, increased efficiency and quicker time to degrees.

Nationwide, tuition at four-year colleges has more than doubled over the past three decades, even after adjusting for inflation, according to federal data. In addition, students who take out college loans but don't graduate are three times more likely to default than borrowers who complete their degree. 

And states with the highest default rates at four-year institutions tend to lag at completion rates and vice versa, according to officials. 

Counting public, private and for-profit institutions, California had an overall graduation rate of 64%, compared with a national average of 55%. The graduation rate is based on the number of full-time students who complete their degrees within six years.

California's overall loan default rate was 9%, compared with 11% nationally.

Although California is doing better than many other states overall, a closer look reveals alarming achievement gaps -- fewer than four in 10 black students in the 23-campus Cal State system graduate within six years, and less than half of Latinos do, said Ryan J. Smith, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for education equity and accountability.

"We definitely have some work to do when it comes to addressing disparities," Smith said.

Duncan said the Obama administration will shift policy toward achieving greater student outcomes. Weeks ago the White House abandoned a proposed college rating system that would have counted graduation rates and other performance measures.

Instead, the education department is creating a new consumer website that will contain many of the same statistics, scheduled to debut this fall.

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