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Graduation Rates Fall at One-Third of 4-Year Colleges

When I’m speaking at high schools and for various civic groups, my audiences are usually shocked to learn that only 53% of students who started university this past September will graduate from that same institution 6 years later.

And now the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that graduation rates are actually declining at one-third of 4-year colleges (registration required).

Graduation rates are imperfect statistics.   They do not take into account students who transfer to another institution and complete their degree there.  They also do not include students who transfer into an institution and successfully graduate. Further, the statistics do  not measure how much a student learns: just because the graduation rate is low does not mean that the teaching is poor or that the students are somehow inferior or incapable.

The reasons for which students do not complete include financial difficulties, a lack of maturity and self-discipline to stick with the academic program, and in some cases a lack of academic preparation.  Graduation rates are an important indicator of student success at any given institution.  Generally speaking, colleges with a higher graduation rate do a better job of retaining their students, either because the school attracts a clientele that is particular likely to persist (the Ivies have sky-high graduation rates), or because the school has excellent programs to advise students and assist them when they run into difficulties, whether those difficulties be financial, academic, social, or some combination.

So despite the statistical imperfections, the graduation rate is an important measure of our overall success in delivering higher education in this country.  Even if the statistic has not captured the full picture, it is certainly clear that too many kids are wasting time and money by paying for credits that will  not earn them a degree.

Our cultural bias toward college may be doing our kids–and our society as a whole–a great disservice.  We tell our kids that they will be losers if they do not go to (and graduate) from college. And yet only 28% of Americans have a Bachelor’s degree.  By this measure, 72% of Americans are big, fat losers.

Not so.

But it is true that students who go to college underprepared,  underfinanced, and without the maturity and self-discipline required lose time, money, and self-confidence if they start college and are unable to finish.

In our consulting  practice, we always remind students and their families that the ultimate goal of the educational plan is not merely to “get in” to college, but to “get out.”  Thus it is incumbent upon everyone involved to realistically evaluate the student’s motivations and aspirations, and to help the student make choices that will increase opportunities and odds for success.

Transferring is expensive, in that students lose credits when they move from one institution to another.  Dropping out before finishing a degree is even more expensive.  And when a student is financing that education on loans, this is even more expensive:  a lot of tuition money thrown away to a college without the diploma to show for it.

This is part of the value we bring to mapping out an educational plan. Not all of our students are high-fliers destined for Ivy.  We have many students whom we counsel to start out slowly, to perhaps start at a community college, or go to school part-time while working.

College is expensive.  But going to college without a well-considered plan can make it even more expensive.  And sometimes a consultant can help you save money in the long run by helping you create a plan that will  help you achieve your goal–and not become a statistic measuring both personal and social failure.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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