Friday, November 11, 2011

Too Few College Students Reach Graduation

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Graduation rates at two and four-year colleges around the country are startlingly low, according to a new report by Complete College America. The report, Time is the Enemy, presents an urgent message: There is no time to waste. The authors find overall that students are taking far too much time to complete their degrees, and that too few people who enroll in postsecondary certificate, two-year, and four-year degree programs actually ever make it through to graduation. As more CTE students go on to higher education, it becomes more important for CTE professionals to understand the challenges they will face.

It has been known for a long time that postsecondary graduation rates are low. I wrote about this back in August, in a post that reported graduation rate data from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia. However, Time is the Enemy brings something new to the conversation because it looks at all college students. According to the report, previously available data on this subject included only first-time, full-time college students because this is all that the federal government requires public colleges to report: "The federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) doesn’t count what happens to part-time students, who make up about 40 percent of all students, nor does it count the success of transfer, low-income, or remedial students" (page 7). In order to give better, more detailed, information on graduation rates, Complete College America recruited 33 states, including Virginia, to submit detailed data on all of the students enrolling in public two- and four-year colleges.

The graphic below, taken from Time is the Enemy, shows how low postsecondary cohort graduation rates are in Virginia, a characteristic we share with most other states. Percentages calculated from that graph show:
  • 46 percent of full-time public 4-year college students graduate in 4 years;
  • 4 percent of full-time 2-year college students graduate in 2 years.
These contrast starkly with the high school cohort graduation rates now published annually by VDOE. For the cohort of students entering ninth grade in 2007-2008, 87 percent graduated on time in 2011.


Graduation Rates at Virginia's Public Colleges


    Who Graduates and Who Doesn't

    The report details a number of the characteristics that distinguish the students who graduate from those who do not. For example, Virginia students are less likely to complete a bachelor's degree if they:
    • Enroll after age 25 (29 percent of full-timers complete in 8 years)
    • Participate in remedial programs (44 percent of full-timers complete in 8 years)
    • Receive Pell grants (59 percent of full-timers complete in 8 years)
    • Are Hispanic (71 percent of full-timers complete in 8 years)
    • Are African American (54 percent of full-timers complete an associate's in 4 years)
    All students who fall into these categories have even lower graduation rates if they attend part time. Over all, only 29 percent of part-time students seeking a bachelor's degree manage to graduate within 8 years.

    Unfortunately, completion rates are even worse for both full-time and part-time students who study for an associate's degree or a 1-year certificate:
    • Twenty percent of full-time and 9 percent of part-time students earn an associate's degree in four years. 
    • Five percent of full-time and 1 percent of part-time students earn a certificate within two years.
    Why Are Graduation Rates So Low

    The report pinpoints a number of reasons why graduation rates are too low.

    It is difficult to be a part-time student. Colleges schedules do not coordinate easily with work. This leads many part-time students to drop out and can make life difficult for the full-time students who have to work as well. After one year of school, part time students in both two-year and four-year colleges are significantly less likely than full-time students to return to campus. Time is the Enemy finds that after the first year at a Virginia two-year college, only 38 percent of part-time and 57 percent of full-time students come back for their second year.

    Students are wasting time on excess credits. Many students end up taking many more courses than they need for graduation, perhaps because they are exploring options or because the sequences needed for graduation aren't clear or the courses they need aren't available. This can be dangerous because the longer students stay in school, the more likely they are to drop out without the qualifications they need.

    Remediation programs are rarely successful. Students who enter remedial programs are half as likely as others to graduate. These programs don't seem to be successful in moving students forward.

    In order to address these problems, Time is the Enemy makes a number of specific recommendations  for reforming college programs. Many of these reforms resemble those that have been a part of secondary education for years. These include: using block schedules, simplifying the registration process, mainstreaming remedial students, and requiring formal, on-time completion plans for every student.

    The Lessons for CTE


    Although the report highlights low graduation rates, it is not intended to discourage students from going on to college. By understanding the challenges to graduation, it should be possible to help students be better prepared and thus more likely to succeed. Three quarters of Virginia CTE completers now go on to college in the year after high school. Most of those students attend full time and are about equally divided between community and four-year college. About 15 percent are part-time students who can expect to face the most significant challenges in reaching graduation.

    Too many students, especially part-time students, enter college without a good sense of how they're going to juggle time, finances, part-time work, and school coursework. Students need to be aware of these issues and start preparing before they begin to struggle in school and then drop out. The stakes are too high to leave this kind of thinking for later. Before college starts, students and parents should consider:
    • how they're going to afford college.  If paying for college requires the student to work part-time, try to plan for commuting to and from work and to class.
    • how to juggle work and school. Schedule classes wisely so that students can both make it to work and to school on time.
    • how to handle course scheduling.  Take classes that count towards the degree you're trying to earn. Many students are taking too many classes that don't count towards their degree, which increases the amount of time it takes to graduate.
    • how to finish your degree on time. Although going part-time will inevitably increase the time it takes to graduate, have a plan for how you're going to finish your degree in a certain amount of time.  Students who take too long, usually don't finish at all.  
    Helping students plan for these kinds of challenges will give them the best chance of finishing college with diploma in hand.