Congress Looking for Ways to Encourage College Completion, Higher Graduation Rates in HEA Debate

Posted By Derek Johnson on September 1, 2015 at 10:28 am
Congress Looking for Ways to Encourage College Completion, Higher Graduation Rates in HEA Debate

Over the past few decades, a paradox has emerged in higher education. Even as a college degree becomes increasingly mandatory for economic success and more people attend college than ever before, graduation rates have remained stagnant over the past 30 years. A chart from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development demonstrates how much of an outlier this lack of progress represents:

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The blue squares represent the percentage of citizens ages 55-64 who earned a college degree, while the lighter blue triangles represent the same data for those ages 25-34 years. While virtually every other OECD country saw a significant increase in college graduation rates between the two groups, the U.S. rate remains virtually unchanged. This lack of progress has caused the U.S. to slip from the second-highest college graduation rate among OECD countries to 15th overall.

Earlier this month, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions attempted to tackle the issue in a hearing dedicated to improving student success. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the committee, stressed that the inability of students to finish college has become a major contributing factor to the student debt crisis.

“Federal data show that just 60 percent of first-time students who attend full time complete their four year degrees within six years. Even fewer complete their degrees on time,” said Murray. “Many of the other 40 percent of students likely dropped out without the advantages of a college degree, while oftentimes trying to pay off student debt.”

Experts increasingly believe that one of the main factors contributing to the student debt crisis is the declining average course load. In previous generations, completing a bachelor’s degree in four years or an associate’s degree in two was the norm. Now, Department of Education data shows that in only 60 percent of students attending a four-year college finish their degree within six years. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that only 55 percent of students who started four-year college programs in 2008 completed their degree within six years. During testimony, Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, said that a report by his organization found that the average student now completes a two-year associate degree in 3.6 years and a four-year bachelor’s degree in 4.9 years.

“Virtually nobody graduates on time,” said Jones.

Why does this matter? Studies show that the longer students take to complete their degree, the more exponentially expensive it becomes. According to Complete College America’s report, “The Four-Year Myth”, the third year of a student’s associate degree will cost them an additional $15,933 on average, while the fifth and sixth years of a bachelor’s degree costs an additional $22,826 per year on average – not including wages lost from extra years spent out of the workforce. The report also found that only 50 of the 580 public college and universities in America boast four-year completion rates of 50 percent or higher.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) raised the prospect of changing federal student aid requirements to encourage or mandate a full 15 credit-hour course load for full-time students. Currently regulations only require 12 credit hours per semester to be considered full-time, a pace that would put students on track to complete a four-year degree in five years.

“A maximum Pell [Grant] is often awarded to a student who’s really not attending full-time. Federal aid does not encourage students to complete their degree as quickly as they can,” said Alexander.

Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, warned that such a change could negatively impact low-income and older students, as both groups tend to work while attending college.

“If the choice for many [students] is between working and going to college, they’re going to choose work – not because they want to, but because they have to,” said Ralls.

Several experts at the hearing honed in on better student support services from universities as a potential solution. Experts and senators threw out a multitude of ideas, from remedial learning “boot camps” for incoming freshmen to outcomes-based learning, which financially rewards universities based on how many students they graduate, not how many enroll. Simply having someone from the university to talk to and plan out their college schedule and course load can have a positive effect on graduation rates.

Doctor LaShawn Richburg-Hayes, a director at MDRC, touted City University of New York’s accelerated study program, which provides students with comprehensive advisement on their college schedule, automatic course enrollment, textbook vouchers and tuition gap coverage. Richburg-Hayes said a February study conducted by her organization found that these measures nearly doubled the graduation rate of students in the program – and lowered the average cost per degree when compared to a control group.

“I don’t think we appreciate enough how much institutional know-how it takes to navigate a modern post-secondary institution,” said Dr. Timothy Renick, Vice Provost at Georgia State University.

Lawmakers are using these hearings to investigate a raft of reforms to the higher education system in the lead up to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is expected to be passed out of committee in late 2015.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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