Op-Ed

How to measure success in higher ed? Not just how many students attend, but how many graduate.

To hear some tell it, the freshmen now arriving on college campuses across the U.S. are setting themselves up for a lifetime of hardship. “I kind of ruined my life by going to college,” blared the August cover of Consumer Reports magazine, quoting a 32-year-old woman. Perhaps the magazine enjoyed strong sales on the back of its sensationalist headline, but it misled the very consumers it hopes to inform in doing so. 

Although the American public is often told that a college education will consign them to six figures of debt and diminished financial prospects, the truth is that 36% of public four-year university graduates complete their degrees without any debt, the average debt among borrowers is $25,500, and less than 2% graduate with more than $60,000 in debt. Never mind that a bachelor’s degree adds up to $1 million to a worker’s lifetime earnings. Even some college, particularly a two-year degree, adds to lifetime earnings. 

In today's hypercompetitive global economy, what gets students into trouble isn’t going to college, it’s leaving college with significant debt but no degree.

Today, 85% of students who graduate from high school on time go on to attend college. Yet just over half finish a degree within six years. There may be as many as 35 million Americans with some college but no degree. These students are often working, married, with family members who are dependent on them. 

The most recently available data show that students who take out loans but fail to complete their degrees are considerably more likely to default on those  loans. In fact, student borrowers holding a bachelor’s degree account for just 1.1 % of all student-loan defaults.

Degree completion has a significant effect on employment. Although workers holding at least a bachelor’s degree account for 36% of the workforce, they have filled 73% of new jobs created since the Great Recession. And the jobless rate for bachelor’s degree holders — 2.5 % last month — is typically half that of workers with only some college, reinforcing the fact that completing all components of a college education is a crucial signaling mechanism to prospective employers that a candidate is well-qualified.

The payoff for degree completion is considerable. Reducing time enrolled before graduation and increasing degree completion helps limit student debt, reduce loan defaults and bolster students’ employment prospects — all while strengthening the country’s economic output through more productive college-educated workers. Raising graduation rates isn’t a cure-all, of course, but it is one of the most important yet underrecognized responses to many of the challenges facing higher education today.

Fortunately, even small policy changes can make a big difference in completion outcomes. Simply establishing the expectation that full-time students enroll in at least 15 credits a semester, or the equivalent in other term formats, has been shown to increase degree completion. Although students can face a variety of responsibilities, such as work commitments and raising children, full-time students who don’t have such obligations should take at least 15 credits a semester.

It’s also helpful to ensure that students can make progress toward their degree no matter the time of year — which is why support is building in Congress to provide aid to students taking summer classes.

But public colleges and universities aren’t waiting for Congress to act. Nearly 500 public universities have pledged to collectively increase the number of Americans earning a degree and share best practices that help to move the needle.

Many institutions are using predictive analytics and Web-based advising to help students chart a clear path to graduation. Some are providing retention micro-grants to low-income students – who are often in their senior year and on track to graduate, but at risk of dropping out because they are just a few hundred dollars short on tuition. Other institutions have proved that an advising session at the beginning of a student’s senior year can appreciably increase their chances of graduating.

In recent years, the United States has achieved much progress in broadening access to higher education – and much work remains to be done. Yet, the ultimate measure of our success is not just the number of students we help attend college, but the number we help graduate.

Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and president emeritus of Michigan State University.

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