Saturday, January 31, 2015

On the Cause(s) of and Cure(s) for Low College Graduation Rates

In a thoughtful essay Thomas K. Lindsay explores several causes of insufficient graduation rates at the nation's public universities and suggests some possible cures.  As he notes, Department of Education Data demonstrate that fewer than half of the nation's college students graduates in four years.  Even after six years, more than 40 percent still have not obtained a degree, he says.  (Go here for some recent Department of Education data showing that, for those students who entered college in 2006, about 41 percent had not graduated after 6 years.) As Lindsay points out. these low graduation rates impose various costs.  Perhaps most importantly, the annual cost of attending college is significant, particularly when one includes the opportunity cost in the form of income that students forgo.  Lindsay quotes a study concluding that: "the average added cost of just one year at a four-year public university is $63,718 in tuition, fees, books, and living expenses, plus lost wages each of those many students could have been earning had they finished on time." Lindsay also points out that students who have not graduated thereby delay their entry into the workplace, reducing their own lifetime earnings.  

Lindsay attributes these low graduation rates to several factors. First, he cites evidence suggesting that students themselves are either unaware of graduation requirements or, if they are aware, fail to take the courses necessary to satisfy such requirements.  Second, Lindsay contends that some colleges and universities have de-emphasized the role of the faculty in academic advising, relying instead on what he calls "professional advising offices."  Compared to faculty, he says, such professional advisors have inferior knowledge about the "strengths and weaknesses of their advisees" and also lack the sort of "deeper understanding of which courses contribute best to a meaningful college experience."  More reliance on faculty advising, he concludes, will improve students' selection of courses and thus increase graduation rates.   Finally, Lindsay contends that some colleges do not offer "the courses required for graduation . . . with sufficient regularity to make a four year stint possible." He concludes by admonishing students and their parents to "get the message" about the importance of graduating in four years and urging universities "to devote more effort to making the four year degree a practical reality once again."

Lindsay has identified a significant shortcoming of American Higher Education, a shortcoming states and the industry itself should be working to address.  Here are a few reactions to Lindsay's thoughtful piece, most of which simply supplement what he has said.

1.  Graduation rates at public universities vary widely among the states, to say the least.  According to this 2012 article in the Washington Post, the 2008 four year graduation rates at state flagship institutions ranged from less than 25 percent (the Universities of Alaska, New Mexico and Nevada) to 85 percent (the University of Virginia).  Moreover, this site maintained by the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that overall four year graduation rates for states's public universities range from 8.2 percent, 14 percent and 20 percent (Alaska, Idaho and Arkansas, respectively) to 68 percent, 69 percent and 70 percent (Washington, Iowa and Delaware, respectively).  Thus, while some states have a large amount of work to do, others are already doing something right.  Perhaps the nation's system of competitive federalism will induce those states who lag to adopt reforms that help close the gap with leaders like Delaware.

2.  Advanced Placement Credits earned in high school can be an important tool for improving graduation rates.   According to this study, for instance, students who enter college with such credits are more likely to graduate on time than similarly-situated students who do not.  Unfortunately, some high schools offer few if any advanced placement courses, thereby hampering the ability of their graduates to complete college in four years.   Indeed, according to this source, slightly more than 40 percent of the nation's high schools offer no advanced placement courses at all.  Moreover, states and even individual universities within a state differ in their policies governing the acceptance of such credits. States that wish to improve the rates at which their citizens graduate from college (including those who attend colleges in other states), should consider expanding the number of high schools that offer Advanced Placement courses and accept such courses, where appropriate, for college credit.

3.  In my view Lindsay overstates the cost that students incur for an additional year of college, for two reasons.  First, like many others, Lindsay includes the cost of room and board in his calculation of this cost. However, and as previously explained on this blog, individuals must purchase food and housing whether or not they attend college.  Thus, policymakers and commentators should not include room and board in the "cost" of college, except to the extent that students attending college incur higher costs of such room and board than they would have incurred had they instead entered the job market without attending or completing college.  Second, the study on which Lindsay relies apparently employs the "sticker price," that is, the price that universities charge to those students who receive no financial aid.  As previously explained on this blog, however, many universities, including public universities, offer generous financial aid, including in some cases free tuition and room and board.   Thus, while colleges must themselves incur the (social) cost of educating such students, many students do not bear such costs themselves.  Thus, the average cost that students incur for an additional year of college is likely less than Lindsay supposes.  Nonetheless, even if one ignores the cost of room and board, the cost of an additional year of college is still substantial.

4.  Finally, there is one additional factor that may explain the failure of some students to graduate in four years, namely, the absence of meaningful employment opportunities upon graduation.  As explained previously on this blog, job growth during the current economic "recovery" has been slow to say the least.  As between remaining in college for an additional year and graduating into a dismal job market, many students will choose the former.  Put more technically, the opportunity cost of an additional year in college is likely lower for many students than the study Lindsay invokes supposes. Thus, policies that facilitate the creation of good, high paying jobs will likely encourage some students to graduate more quickly.