Dropping Out of College and Redefining Graduation Timeframes

Redefining Graduation Timeframes Doesn't Help

In 2008, the federal government moved to lengthen the graduation timeframe, either because they felt a more plausible standard by which to measure was needed or possibly in hopes of simply inflating graduation numbers. With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 2008, schools could report graduation rates at 200 percent of time enrolled, from 6 and 3 years to 8 and 4 for bachelor's and associate's, respectively.12

Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you're interested in transparency of systemic problems), the new standard made little difference. Two-year institutions saw their rate increase by 5.4 percentage points, from 31.4% to 36.7%. Next, less-than two-year schools gained 3 percentage points, from 68% to 71%. Four-year institutions, however, barely registered gains, with a change of only 2.8 percentage points, 57.4% to 60.2%.13 Obviously, if a student hasn't completed their bachelor's in six years, there is little chance they will in 8 and even less after that.

Going back to the goals of the Obama Administration, there is a wide chasm between current higher education completion rates now and where the country needs to be in a decade-and-a-half.

Assessing the New Kids on the Block: For-Profit and Online Education Providers

In the eyes of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business federation, higher education is suffering from an outdated delivery system. In a recent report by their education affiliate, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW), the system has been insulated from innovation by government regulation, guided by a collegial, risk-averse culture of shared governance, higher education has avoided addressing the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy.?14

One of those strategies is the expansion of delivery systems of education, among them for-profit colleges and online learning. Both of these are not new ideas per se, but are in the midst of some growing pains. With for-profit colleges, a new report on graduation rates by Education Trust reveals that these institutions sport unimpressive graduation numbers themselves. For instance, at the University of Phoenix, the nation?s largest for-profit college only 9% of first-time, full-time bachelor?s degree students graduate within six years.15

The report also found that in 2008, only 22% of the first-time, full-time bachelor?s degree students at for-profit colleges over all graduate within six years, compared with 55% at public institutions and 65 percent at private nonprofit colleges.16 However, the report does acknowledge that for students seeking associate degrees, for-profit colleges? three-year graduation rate of 60% nearly triples the 22% rate at public community colleges.17

Online delivery of education sits in a bit of purgatory at the moment, in terms of perception. According to findings published by the Pew Research Center, less than one-third of the general public believes that online college courses offer the same value as in-person courses. Surprisingly, however, over half of college presidents disagree with that position.18 College presidents were formerly thought to be a major hurdle to the integration of online learning into traditional college and university curricula. In fact, more than three-quarters of the college presidents reported their institutions offer online courses, including 89% of four-year public schools.19

For the U.S. to achieve its goals in the area of higher education attainment, the system needs to deliver value through multiple channels, thereby addressing the needs of an increasingly diverse national student body. Different students have different needs. While traditional institutions of higher learning are set up for the degree student, online and more innovative systems of delivery, such as StraighterLine and/or its partner institutions like Western Governors University, can better accommodate adult learners and those who dropped out long ago, but want to restart their education, especially at a more affordable cost structure than traditional schools.

In their recent report, the US Chamber of Commerce listed StraighterLine as a ?Spotlight Innovation? for ?attacking the adverse cost spiral of higher education: It offers perhaps the most affordable for-credit online courses on the Internet?StraighterLine has been lauded by a number of publications for lowering the cost of college and potentially shaking up the higher education industry through it?s a la carte model of course offerings.20

Reasons for dropping out need to be addressed as well, whether those factors are academic, time-sensitive, or cost-related, and a more open, flexible system of education is better equipped to do just that. As the US Chamber writes in its report, ?Many of the most promising initiatives with the potential to transform higher education are coming from outside the education establishment. Whether this new wave of innovation is allowed to flourish and help solve higher education?s productivity crisis is up to policymakers and higher education leaders.?21

12 http://www.educationsector.org/publications/more-less-extra-time-does-little-boost-college-grad-rates

13 http://www.educationsector.org/sites/default/files/publications/EDS006%20CYCT-MoreIsLess_RELEASE.pdf (Direct download)

14 http://icw.uschamber.com/publication/college-20-transforming-higher-education-through-greater-innovation-smarter-regulation

15 http://www.edtrust.org/sites/edtrust.org/files/publications/files/Subprime_report.pdf (Direct download)

16 Ibid

17 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/24/education/24colleges.html

18 http://chronicle.com/article/College-Presidents-Are-Bullish/128814/

19 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903352704576536812128623804.html

20 http://icw.uschamber.com/publication/college-20-transforming-higher-education-through-greater-innovation-smarter-regulation

21 Ibid