Education Outcomes: Report Exposes Depths of Colleges’ Completion Crisis

Posted By Derek Johnson on September 22, 2016 at 9:39 am
Education Outcomes: Report Exposes Depths of Colleges’ Completion Crisis

To our readers: This is the third of three articles examining the future of for-profit education and the effects of increased scrutiny on education outcomes. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

When the Obama administration sought to create a comprehensive scorecard to track and grade each U.S. university on a wide range of metrics and outcomes, the proposal ran into an unexpected roadblock. Administration officials expected the move to isolate for-profit colleges, whose poor education outcomes and predatory tactics had become something of an embarrassment to the rest of the higher education world.

GoodCall investigates logoBut the administration didn’t expect traditional colleges and universities to form an unholy alliance with their for-profit counterparts, marshaling enough combined lobbying power in Washington to beat back the proposal. Keeping score of education outcomes and job placement statistics, it seemed, was a Pandora’s Box that public and private nonprofits wanted no part of opening.

“The higher ed lobby doesn’t want any accountability—they want money, and they want money without limitations, without restrictions, without accountability to anybody outside the academy,” David Bergeron of the Center for American Progress said in an interview with ProPublica.

A report released last month by Third Way suggests those fears about education outcomes may be well grounded. Using data from the College Scorecard (a watered-down version of the very system the higher ed lobby sank), the authors reveal a widespread college completion crisis that plagues not just for-profits but the entire higher education system.

Among the jaw-dropping findings:

  • Less than half of first-time students at the average four-year public university graduate within six years.
  • 4 in 10 can’t earn more than high school graduates.
  • More than 1 in 5 students are unable to pay their monthly student loan bills three years after leaving their school.

Not all public colleges are equal on education outcomes

When compared in the aggregate, the completion rate for public colleges (58 percent from 2008 to 2014) appears much higher than the for-profit sector (27 percent over the same timeframe). However, the authors examined the individual graduation rates for more than 535 public colleges and found that the overwhelming majority, 85 percent, fail to matriculate half their students within six years and would be considered dropout factories requiring federal intervention if they were high schools.

“This means that today, a first-time, full-time student who enters the average public institution is more likely to NOT graduate from that school than they are to graduate – a reality that should be distressing to any prospective student hoping to earn a degree from the same institution where they first enroll,” write authors Tamara Hiller and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky.

In addition, the report finds that a large percentage (48 percent) of Pell Grant dollars – funding set aside to assist low-income students afford college – are going to institutions that perform the worst in metrics such as graduation rates, loan repayment and post-college earnings. The results in the aggregate suggest that many four-year public colleges and universities are failing to provide better outcomes for large swaths of their student bodies. This cuts against the sometimes-simplistic way that many people evaluate college choice, and the authors warn students and parents not to automatically assume that a public college will deliver superior results.

“When thinking about the public sector, many students and families may be inclined to lump schools together even if the outcome data varies widely from campus to campus within the same state system,” write the authors.

Sounding the alarm

The conclusions reached by the Third Way were not a surprise to organizations such as Complete College America, which has been sounding the alarm over the college completion crisis for years. Dhanfu Elston, vice president for alliance state relations, says the report’s findings are broadly consistent with the organization’s research. Elston says graduating on time (within four years of enrollment) is often the dividing line between the haves and have-nots in higher education. Nevertheless, large majorities of the student population aren’t able to finish in six years, and the longer students stay in school, the more likely they are to suffer a range of poor outcomes.

“Every time people see a report like this, it’s extremely sobering, but it is a necessary place to begin the discussion of ‘whats next,’” said Elston. “This report reinforces that that might be happening in some areas more than others, but we’re seeing this as a large national problem across a number of institutions, for profit, nonprofit, and that is something we are committed to working on at all levels.”

Poor graduation rates and student outcomes are a problem that transcends institution type, and Elston says a further dive into the education outcomes data reveals that with a few notable exceptions, many colleges across all institution types are having difficulty graduating groups from non-traditional and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The problems are structural, Elston said, including poor academic guidance on the part of many universities and lack of a clear understanding on the part of students about the workload necessary to finish their degree in four years.

“This idea of what it takes to graduate on time seems simple to some people, but it’s not. If you are a first generation college student, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Elston says.

Complete College America recommends a range of policies to improve graduation rates, from guided academic pathways that emphasize the importance of taking 15 credit hours a semester to placing remedial students in the same entry-level college courses as their peers. The organization points to states including Indiana, Tennessee, Colorado and West Virginia that have significantly improved the passing rates in entry-level math and English courses by adopting co-requisite remediation policies.

Completion, not cost

The Third Way authors lament that much of the policy discussions in higher education centers on cost. Politicians have focused much of their energies on developing policies to rein in or lower the cost of attending college, rolling out proposals to make public colleges debt-free or tuition-free. While this is a “worthwhile” discussion, the authors point out that making college tuition or debt-free won’t change the underlying dynamics that result in large numbers of college students never reaping the benefits of a marketable degree.

Rather than focus so much attention on cost-containment strategies, the authors argue that more investment is needed in collecting the kind of outcome data they used to write their report. Making more of this information available to researchers and the public, they say, is the best way to ensure consumers spend their money wisely.

“This inquiry will require us to broaden the policy debate in higher education from one that focuses solely on refinancing student loans or providing debt-free college to one that improves data transparency for students and holds colleges accountable for outcomes,” the authors write in their conclusion. “While addressing the rising costs of college is a worthwhile discussion, students deserve a better guarantee that if they enroll in college they will get a return on their investment of both time and money.”

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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