You may have seen or heard about the USA Todayarticle on June 3, based on an American Enterprise Institute study of graduation rates at colleges around the country, “4-year colleges graduate 53% in 6 years.” In the first line the author of the article reports that the study calls the 6-year graduation rate esentially a failure, and goes on to note that there many schools with rates much, much lower. For those who expect to get into college, concentrate on it, and get done, it seems less than a success, especially when so many opportunities exist for highly qualified students (from AP courses in high schools, to online courses, let alone that simply taking a full load (15-16 units each semester) will give you enough course work to finish in four years.
When, as some have argued, the mission of higher education is “access” for those whose early opportunity did not prepare them fully for college level work is considered, graduating in six years might seem like a great success.
But there are many other things to think about. For instance: why not report on the four and five year rates? These tell you how many students at a university come in ready to go. Many will get out in four years, and the five year rate picks up those who often need a couple of courses (perhaps summer will do) or the fall to finish. Even for schools who admit many “first generation” students (whom recent research tells us graduate at much slower and lower rates, in all racial and social categories) the four and five year numbers are a good test of how well the institution is working with those students to encourage success and steady progression toward a degree.
So what does this mean? We should be (and are) looking at our four year rates, at least as much as our six year. Our four year rate ranges from 49-51%, and our five year around 56-59% over the years. We are proud of this success, especially since about 40% of our student body are first generation students. You can compare this with some universities in California where the four year rate ranges from 12-18%.
But the real meaning of this is for students. Those who can pursue their education full time, and work on the side, have the opportunity to concentrate, to see the connections between one subject and another, and to form ways of thinking and experiencing that create depth and understanding. They work with other students who take learning seriously, spend more time on campus and with their professors, and develop deep habits of learning. They move into professions, careers and service, sooner and gain experience earlier. The university’s role, which we takc seriously also, is to bring students into this life of learning in depth. A university which is seeing the kind of success outlined above has professors who are engaging in study and research, in discussion and writing with their students, who are inviting students into that life of learning and scholarhip, and are modeling what it means to be a professional for them.
Parents–and those paying the bills–might be especially interested because the shorter college period, moves the student to independence sooner, and to adulthood and full responsibility for themselves and others, something we hope our children want to achieve. Or as one practical parent told me “it get’s him off my payroll and on to someone else’s.” There is something to be said for that.
These seem to me to be some of the meaning behind the numbers. Shouldn’t we be pushing those numbers back? How can we encourge students to finish in four years? How can we develop the habits of deep learning that will propel them through their lifetimes? How can we prepare students for lives of professional accomplishment and service? How do we encourage in them ethical and spiritual sensitivity so that their work and lives are healthy for themselves and others, and full of meaning? All of this takes concentrated attention to learning, focus, dedication, support, and a lot of determination when so much around us invites distraction, and the standard is to slow it down and take your time, to cram four years into six. It takes this dedication on the part of the student and the university.
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