Concern in New Jersey over Low College Graduation Rates

Barry Lenson

Concern in New Jersey over Low College Graduation Rates

“At most N.J. colleges, freshmen have less than 50 percent chance of graduating in 4 years,” an article in the January 30 edition of the Star-Ledger, delivers some news that must worry a lot of people in the Garden State.

“Four-year graduation rates ranged from 90 percent at Princeton University to a mere 6 percent at New Jersey City University in 2008,” author Kelly Heyboer writes. “. . . Several of the state’s largest public universities — including Kean, Montclair State and William Paterson — reported less than a third of their full-time freshmen completed a bachelor’s degree within four years.”

That sounds bad. But how troubling are those statistics, really? Are four-year graduation rates really an important measure of how well New Jersey’s colleges and universities are doing?

We think that the figures reflect some widespread changes in American higher education. Today, students may not graduate after four years from the college where they started because they are . . .

Taking time off to work and earn money.

Transferring to other schools.

Lightening their course loads because they have to work to earn money.

What’s really happening is that the definition of college has changed. It’s no longer an institution that grants undergraduate degrees in four years. It is simply a place that grants undergraduate degrees.

Maybe it helps to think about phones. Twenty years ago, a phone was a device that plugged into a wall jack and rang and let you make calls. Today, a phone is a device that lets you watch streaming video, play games, do Internet searches, find your destination – and make calls. Yet we still call the devices “phones.”

People are not worried because phones have changed, but they feel differently about colleges. After all, earning a college degree has always been part of the American dream, and when trends start to monkey around with that dream, people start to feel uneasy.

But instead of fretting about the changes, maybe we should feel good. If colleges in New Jersey and elsewhere are flexible enough to adapt to the needs of their students, isn’t that a good thing?

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