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Graduation Rates

Graduation Rates

I was intrigued by an article last week on the growing pressure on flagship state universities to increase 4-year graduation rates. Part of my fascination involves flagship envy (see the new DSM on this disease). Flagship schools have resources that I would welcome for Mason, which means they have options, for example in the graduation rate area, that places like Mason lack. Still, the broad discussion of graduate rates applies quite widely, which is why last week’s particulars interested me.

First: I accept that we all should be doing better in the general area of graduation rates as a measure of effective education and proof that we aren’t wasting students’ and society’s time.

Second: This said, a bit of annoyance is permissible at the legislators and pundits who are asking public universities to perform better while cutting their resources. Nothing to do about this, it’s part of the current climate, but there’s some ignorance and hypocrisy involved.

Third: The diagnosis of current problems is complex and often flawed. Reference is offered, for example, to students changing majors as a key problem. In individual instances, perhaps, though the pattern can also reflect thoughtful adaptations and adjustments. But the facts seem to be that, overall, changing majors does not slow graduation — and we need to be looking at facts, not campus myths.

Other factors deserve attention but are harder to assess. Universities cause some problems by not offering enough sections of required courses (this is one area where declining resources have taken a toll, though we need to correct the problems to the greatest extent possible). Certain students cause problems by not studying hard enough, thus having to repeat work or encountering such difficulties that they give up altogether. A more vigorous mutual compact, between students and schools, to strive as hard as possible to improve completion rates is highly desirable, and we need to be discussing ways to translate this into effective action.

But fourth: The piece that was oddly missing from the recent report was the role of student employment in complicating graduation rates. To be sure, flagship schools often have financial aid and on-campus job resources that affect the impact of work (students with on campus jobs retain better than those working elsewhere). And some flagships are located in bucolic settings where job opportunities are not plentiful. But students’ need to work where possible, particularly given current costs and family incomes, have to be factored into the equation.
Somehow, the current popularity of criticizing institutions (for bottlenecks) and students (for being young and heedless) is leaving this element out of the equation. Again, we need more accuracy and understanding if we are to do a better educational job. Work factors into the experience of many students; it can in some cases actually help tie education to later job performance; it can reflect some of the other goals being currently recommended, about more hands-on links in the educational process. This is another area where we need fuller understanding, but this has to begin with greater public recognition of the importance of the phenomenon in the first place.

Which raises one final thought: Why the 4-year measure, rather than a 5 or 6 year, which may be more meaningful at most public institutions? Why not keep the pressure up, but in a more realistic fashion? Like most of my academic colleagues (I assume) I graduated in four years and thought this was normal. U.S. News perpetuates the four-year mystique. Yet my experience at Mason, flagship envy aside, has made me wonder whether we shouldn’t work to alter the standard, while then trying to live up to the result more competently (including working harder to make sure about course availability).

This is, in sum, a good conversation basically, but not always framed in the most useful or realistic fashion. We can do better.