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Low College Graduation Rates? Blame Low Admissions Standards

‘Tis the season.  High school graduation.

It’s a wonderful time of the year.  But it’s also a time of year when high school seniors–and maybe a few juniors–are waking up to the fact that perhaps they aren’t ready for college.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that high school graduation requirements have been diluted. Let’s be frank: the graduation bar is pretty low.

But that does not mean, however, that the bar for entering college should be low.  Of course, we all want to give people second chances and to provide as much access to higher education as possible.  But something is seriously wrong.  And some states are waking up to the fact that access has its costs.  Financial.  And Educational.

At many of our colleges and  universities have four and six-year graduation rates at public universities is are really, really low. Really low.

Here are some examples (with statistics from the Education Trust and Wintergreen Orchard House):

University of Rio Grande in Rio Grande, Ohio.  90% of the students there are white.  And in 2007, the six year graduation rate was 12.7%. In the fall of 2006, approximately 550 freshmen matriculated.  Thus we can expect that about 70 of those will graduate by spring of 2012.  Tuition, room, and board?  a bit over $25,000.  Would you take out a loan if you knew your chance of graduating was about one in eight?

Concordia College is an HBCU affiliated with the Lutheran Church and is located in Selma, Alabama. Ninety-six percent of students are African-American.  The cost for room and board is about $12,000 per year, which seems pretty reasonable.  But only 9.1% of students graduate from Concordia in 6 years. What is going on?  Would you lay down your hard-earned money for a 1-in-10 shot at a Bachelor’s degree?

Western New Mexico University in Silver City, NM, serves a student population that is 46% Latino and 38% white.  This is a publicly funded university, and just over 2,000 students attending classes on its main campus, with a few hundred more scattered on smaller, further-flung satellites (New Mexico is a big, sparsely populated state).  The graduation rate?  15.3 percent finish in 6 years.  Costs?  Those subsidized by the good taxpayers of the state of New Mexico pay $4700 per year.  And the foolish 13% of Western New Mexico University who come from out of state pay nearly $22,000 in tuition–before room, board, books, fees, travel, and entertainment is included.  Highway robbery.

According to an article today in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, some people are starting to figure out that perhaps if we raised the admission requirements to college, perhaps the graduation rate would go up.

Blinding Flash of the Obvious.

The fact is that admissions standards at many colleges are abysmally low.  The joke in the business is that some colleges will admit any kid with a pulse and a checkbook.  And in today’s tough financial climate, some of these bottom feeder colleges–especially the private ones–should be nervous.  There are still plenty of pulses, but fewer checkbooks.  And perhaps consumers will be more wary about how they spend their money.  I mean, come on:  a 10% graduation rate?  Would you hire a consultant with a 10% success rate?  How about a plumber who fixed 13% of all leaks?  Or how about depositing your savings at a bank at which 11% of customers earned interest?  Looney, you say?  Ab-so-bloomin‘-lutely.   Some private colleges deserve to die.

It’s easy to see that private colleges may crash and burn as easy credit dries up and consumers wise up to the fact they should perhaps shop around a bit before they plop down their cash on the barrel.

But what about publicly-funded colleges?  Western New Mexico has a full-time faculty of 114 highly educated professors, plus another 150 part-time instructors.  Taxpayers foot mostof their salaries.  I’m wondering why the New Mexico state legislature isn’t all over that place, holding hearings, and asking whether the pointy-headed academics are actually doing their jobs?  What are the teaching, anyway?  Why isn’t there at least one legislator threatening to close the place down as taxpayer rip-off?

But the real issue is not the teachers:  there is only so much teachers can do when the individuals sitting in their classrooms is academically underprepared, or perhaps even marginally literate.

I’m all about access.  But when does our emphasis on access obscure our failure to educate?  When does our desire to offer everyone a second chance collide with the fact that college is–and should be–academically rigorous, and not all kids are cut out for academic work? When does our believe in equality of opportunity for all mask the fact that kids are still graduating from high school without even the most basic of academic skills?

When should an admissions officer look at an applicant’s transcript, size up the student, and say, “I’m sorry, I could admit you, but I just don’t think you will graduate”?

Sure, this would be mean.  Such brutal honesty might tromp on some poor young person’s self-esteem.  The kid might become sad.  She might cry. She might be disappointed.

But isn’t it downright immoral–criminal, even–to take that family’s money, to raise false hopes, to put the student in classes in which we can predict she will fail, and then watch her descend into a spiral of debt and despair?

Here’s what the admissions officer should say:   “I’m sorry.  You have not met the required standard.  Go to the community college at a fraction of the cost of this four year institution, do the remedial work necessary to succeed, prove you can handle college work, and come back and see me in a year. I refuse to take your money , because in my professional judgment I cannot, if I were to matriculate, you would be unlikely to graduate.  I’m sorry.”

In other words, folks, raise the bar for admissions. According to the Times Picayune, tougher admissions standards are working at Louisiana State.  More kids are graduating.


So the lessons of this lengthy epistle?

1.  Private colleges with minimalist admissions standards may very well be crushed by the current economic crisis.  The College of Santa Fe is already in its final death throes.  Expect others to follow suit.

2.  Taxpayers and legislators–as well as ordinary families seeking educational options for their kids–should be alarmed at low graduation rates, and should militate to rase admission standards–if only to stop wasting government dollars.

Thanks for reading to the end.  This was a doozy.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant

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Reader Interactions


  1. Hi Mark,

    As a reader, I’m curious to know the story behind these numbers. Questions like, “What’s the transfer rate?” “Are they counting trad ugrad with adult CE students (who may opt for non-matric certificate programs)?” and “What sort of support services are available?” immediately come to mind. I’m not expecting you to know these answers :-), but whenever I see a college with very poor completion numbers it makes me wonder how they arrive at those numbers and what factors on campus influence them. Thanks for the detailed and lively post -it was an enjoyable read!
    Laura Zurowski

  2. Hi, Laura. You are correct to snoop behind the statistics. More efforts are being made to measure transfer rates, which are indeed a part of the completion rate picture. The problem is that there is no Federal database that follows students through the higher education system. In fact, until recently, it has been hard in most case to track primary and secondary students as they transfer from one school to the next (or one state to the next). So certainly these stats don’t paint a completely accurate picture.

    But consider this: some colleges have have students who transfer both in and out at the same rate. In other words, they have a negligible decline in their cohort of students from freshman year to senior year. Put another way, some schools graduate the same number of students they started with as freshmen–even though a number of them may have transferred.

    Thus one interesting statistical game is to look at the number of entering freshmen and compare that to the number of graduating seniors four years later. For some colleges, we would notice a steep decline. And my guess is that the schools on this list would be similar–if not identical–to the colleges whose overall six-year graduation rate is darned low.

    Thanks for your comment and question, Laura!

  3. Mark,
    There is a national database that educational entities can use to track students..even if they transfer. We use the National Clearinghouse each year and it is an excellent way to follow our 1200 students to see where they are in college at any given time. If a student transfers, it lets us know. The subscription is a little over $400 a year.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Toni. It’s great that this database is available for subscription, and that colleges were keeping track of their own transfers. Wouldn’t it be nice, however, if these statistics were reported in the Common Data Set and somehow rolled into the stats reported by the government (and thus, by US News & World Report)? Some colleges should be quite happy to report that while students do drop out of their colleges, these same students do go on to successfully complete their degree. However, other colleges would be horrified to admit that their drop outs are just, well, dropping out.

    Thanks for visiting!


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