Every college and university, particularly those that rely heavily on taxpayer support, is striving to improve the four-year graduation rate of their students. And it makes sense as a high priority objective—many knowledgeable observers consider the four-year graduation rate a critical measure of institutional success and a low four-year rate of graduation is a very costly proposition to all stakeholders: taxpayers, contributors, students, and families.
The University of Texas at Austin, for example, has as its objective an increase in the four-year graduation rate from the current level of approximately 52% to 70% by 2019. This is a pretty tall order, particularly since the rate has been flat for about 10 years, but it can be done, given the enormous resources at its disposable. A major issue, however, is the perverse incentives that might come into play in order to achieve the objective, particularly in terms of the possible lowering of standards. The problem of grade inflation in higher education across the board is widely acknowledged and, in the absence of an external objective assessment, there could be unintended consequences from increased pressure on graduation rates. This is why many observers, including me, support independent assessments such as the College Learning Assessment and/or the various competency exams that are coming into use to measure what students have learned and what value has been added over four years. In fact, it seems to make sense to expect these institutions to show overall growth in average scores on the exit exams while also increasing graduation rates.
Another issue of concern with graduation rates is the issue of “mismatching” students and their college choices because of affirmative action in order to achieve racial and ethnic diversity. This practice no doubt has a dampening impact on graduation rates in highly selective institutions that admit significant numbers of students who do not meet the achievement and postsecondary readiness standards of their peers. Many of these students, although they have good high school grades, are 200-300 SAT exam points below the average admission standard at places like UT-Austin and Texas A&M and are not ready to succeed there, producing discouragement, requiring more support and remediation, lengthening degree completion time, and increasing the chance of failure. They would be much better served by a less selective school.
Finally, one of the best solutions to the problem of low college graduation rates is to continue the push for higher standards in our elementary and secondary education system. Currently, 51% of Texas high school graduates who choose to attend community colleges are required to take remedial courses due to the failure of our schools to prepare them for postsecondary success. This percentage must be drastically reduced and our institutions of higher education have a responsibility to work closely with public school educators to assure that curriculum is aligned with higher education requirements and that the standards for rigor are strengthened.