Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don't)
About This Event

In his first speech to Congress earlier this year, President Obama emphasized that low graduation rates are a threat to America’s international competitiveness and challenged the nation’s colleges and universities to improve. Weeks later, his first budget proposal included an unprecedented $2.5 billion in new funding to improve graduation rates. Listen to Audio

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While the administration recognizes the urgent need to tackle this challenge, the depth and breadth of the crisis is staggering. At a time when college degrees are valuable in job searches, fewer than 60 percent of students graduate from four-year colleges within six years. For many institutions, graduation rates are far worse.

A new AEI report,
Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don't), by Frederick M. Hess, AEI's director of education policy studies; Mark Schneider, a visiting scholar at AEI and vice president of the American Institutes for Research; Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector; and AEI research fellow Andrew P. Kelly spotlights the dramatic variation in graduation rates across 1,300 of the nation’s colleges and universities. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the report's authors examine graduation rates across schools with similar levels of admissions selectivity, as denoted in the widely used Barron's Profiles of American Colleges. The substantial differences found between colleges and universities within the same selectivity category strongly suggest that institutional practice, not just student quality, influences completion rates. Following presentations by two of the authors, Geri Malandra, senior vice president of the American Council on Education; Diane Reese, recently named one of the top ten school counselors in the United States by the American School Counselor Association; and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, will discuss the report's findings and recommendations. Frederick M. Hess will moderate.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, JUNE 3, 2009--In his first speech to Congress, President Obama promised that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don't), released today by the AEI, exposes the dramatic variation in completion rates across nearly 1,400 colleges and universities.

Less than 55 percent of first-time students at the average four-year college graduate within six years, and at many institutions, students have less than a one in three chance of earning a degree--even as they spend thousands of dollars on tuition and accumulate thousands of dollars of debt. The authors find that completion rates vary dramatically across institutions with similar admissions standards.

"Such differences suggest that while student motivation, finances, and ability matter greatly when it comes to college completion, the practices of higher education institutions matter, too," Frederick M. Hess, lead author of Diplomas and Dropouts, said at the launch event.

The study's coauthors (listed below) use data from the U.S. Department of Education to examine graduation rates across schools with similar levels of admissions selectivity, as defined by the popular Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, which rates schools in six categories from "noncompetitive" to "most competitive." Among their findings:

  • Schools with the least selective admissions criteria have the lowest average graduation rates. "Noncompetitive" institutions graduate, on average, 35 percent of their students within six years, while the "most competitive" institutions graduate 88 percent.
  • There is wide variation in graduation rates across institutions within the same selectivity categories. Within the same group of "competitive" schools, the top ten have an average graduation rate of more than 75 percent, while the bottom ten graduate just 20 percent in six years.
  • For instance, the University of Louisville in Kentucky and James Madison University in Virginia are both "very competitive" state schools that charge about $7,000 in tuition. While Louisville only graduates 44 percent of its students in six years, James Madison graduates 81 percent.
  • Hundreds of institutions fail to graduate a majority of their students in six years, yet these colleges and universities still receive tens of billions of dollars from taxpayers every year. At a time of fiscal constraints and tight budgets, voters and public officials should be aware of institutions that are not accomplishing their most basic task of graduating students.

Parents, students, and guidance counselors too often lack information on graduation rates when selecting schools or deciding where to spend thousands of dollars in savings--or take on thousands of dollars of debt.

"At a time when growing unemployment disproportionately affects workers without a degree, it is critical that this information is available and accessible so that consumers can make informed decisions," Kevin Carey, coauthor of Diplomas and Dropouts, said.

The authors note that graduation rates are an important measure of school performance, but they do not suggest that high graduation rates are always an indicator of quality or that low graduation rates are necessarily bad. After all, graduation rates would rise if standards were lowered and universities awarded diplomas to all students regardless of academic performance. Rather, this report presents a call for a broader exploration of postsecondary outcomes.

"We believe that the graduation rate measure included here should be just the beginning of a richer inquiry into college success," Mark Schneider, coauthor of the study, said. "One driven by more accurate measures broadly defined in future earnings, in acquiring knowledge, in workplace success, and ultimately in becoming the kind of citizens who can contribute to the stability and prosperity of our society."

View complete summary.

Speaker biographies

Kevin Carey is the policy director at Education Sector. He writes a monthly column on higher education policy for the Chronicle of Higher Education and has published articles and op-eds in publications including Washington Monthly, Phi Delta Kappan, Education Week, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Daily News. He has authored Education Sector reports on topics including college rankings and improving minority college graduation rates.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor of Education Next. His many books include When Research Matters (Harvard Education Press, 2008), No Remedy Left Behind (AEI Press, 2007), Educational Entrepreneurship (Harvard Education Press, 2006), Tough Love for Schools (AEI Press, 2006), Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), and Spinning Wheels (Brookings Institution Press, 1998). His work has appeared in both popular and scholarly outlets, including Social Science Quarterly, the Harvard Educational Review, Education Week, Phi Delta Kappan, the Washington Post, and National Review. Mr. Hess serves on the review board for the Broad Prize in Urban Education, as a research associate with the Harvard University Program on Education Policy and Governance, and as a member of the research advisory board for the National Center for Educational Accountability. He is a former high school social studies teacher and has taught at Harvard University, Georgetown University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia.

Geri Malandra joined the American Council on Education in February 2009 as senior vice president for leadership, membership, and policy research. Previously, she served as vice chancellor for strategic management at the fifteen-campus University of Texas System, leading the development of the system’s first comprehensive accountability and performance reports, its compact process, and initiatives on internationalization and leadership development. While in Texas, Ms. Malandra also served as an adviser to the Commission on the Future of Higher Education and was appointed vice chair of the National Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity. Earlier, as associate vice provost in the University of Minnesota administration, she led the development of Minnesota’s first comprehensive accountability reporting system.

Diane Reese is a counselor at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, where she has worked for more than eight years. In 2009, she was named one of the top ten school counselors in the United States by the American School Counselor Association. Earlier this year, she also garnered the Professional of the Year Award from the Business and Professional Women’s League of Washington, D.C. Currently, Ms. Reese works with Academy 1 and the STEP program. She is widely respected for the development of several unique programs, including Project GOAL (Girls Having Opportunities for Academic Success and Leadership Development), an after-school leadership program, and the Reading Circle Club, a literacy program that engages staff and students. Before becoming a counselor, Ms. Reese worked in Alexandria with the Youth Services Program as a probation officer.
Mark Schneider is vice president for new education initiatives at the American Institutes for Research and a visiting scholar at AEI. Formerly the commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, Mr. Schneider writes about a broad range of education issues: charter schools, consumer choice in education, the relationship between school facilities and academic outcomes, and higher education policy. He is the author or coauthor of numerous scholarly books and articles, including the award-winning Choosing Schools: Consumer Choice and the Quality of American Schools (Princeton University Press, 2000). From 2000 to 2001, he served as vice president of the American Political Science Association (APSA) and simultaneously as president of APSA’s public policy section.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and University Professor of Public Service at George Washington University. He served as president of the university from 1988 to 2007. He was previously president of the University of Hartford for eleven years and, before that, dean and vice president of Boston University for eight years. During the Lyndon Johnson administration, he was special assistant to the U.S. commissioner of education. Mr. Trachtenberg’s publications in academic and lay journals have received wide acclaim. He has written four books and is the coeditor of The Art of Hiring in America’s Colleges and Universities (Prometheus, 1993). He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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