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

December 05, 2010

Jerome Thompson entered the University of Akron in 1996, fresh out of high school. He dropped out within a year, saying in retrospect that he lacked the maturity and discipline to continue his studies. "It was, Should I go to class that day, or am I gonna hang out?" he says. "OK, I'm gonna hang out."

He didn't give up on academe, however. He returned to the university in 2001 and earned a bachelor's degree in social work, although it took him eight more years.

It was a personal victory for Mr. Thompson. But for Akron, it was as if he had never returned, at least when it came to reporting the university's graduation rate to the federal government. The rules didn't allow Akron to count Mr. Thompson as finishing his degree, because he didn't do so within six years of first enrolling.

Students like Mr. Thompson may help explain why at Akron and other colleges, the graduation rate has been heading in the wrong direction. A Chronicle analysis of nearly 1,400 four-year institutions shows that one-third reported lower graduation rates for the six-year period ending in 2008 than for the one ending in 2003.

The rate dropped by six percentage points at North Dakota State University, by seven points at Bowling Green State University, and by eight points at Wilmington University. Akron's seven-point decline was one of the largest among all public, research-intensive universities. And its graduation rate, 33 percent, was one of the lowest.

Akron and other institutions cited a variety of reasons for the lagging rates, including competing priorities and changing student demographics, and they described renewed efforts to improve.

There are certainly many models to follow. Colleges have raised graduation rates through proactive advising and by better integrating freshmen into campus life, among other measures. The colleges have incentives: The Obama administration, foundations, and state officials are all pressing them to produce more graduates to ensure the country's economic health in the future.

But it will take time and strong leadership to raise rates across colleges, experts say, as mounting financial pressures on both students and institutions combine to push rates lower.

The Rate People Hate

Besides failing to count students who take a long time to complete their degrees, the graduation rate is in other respects an incomplete measure of institutional quality. The data describe a minority of all enrolled students, counting only full-time, first-time students who enroll in the fall and complete degrees within "150 percent of normal time"—six years for students seeking bachelor's degrees. The graduation rate excludes students who transfer to other colleges and earn degrees there. It also omits students who transfer in and graduate. By one estimate, the rate ignores up to 50 percent of all enrolled students.

What's more, the graduation rate doesn't measure how much students actually learn. Nor does it show how well colleges are helping academically underprepared students to succeed.

Even so, despite its methodological shortcomings, the rate is the primary, publicly available, uniform metric that describes how well colleges are serving their students.

The picture it paints is not pretty. Aside from the institutions where rates have declined, growth has been modest at best. The median graduation rate among four-year colleges increased by approximately two percentage points, to about 53 percent, from 2003 to 2008. The rate dropped at nearly 500 four-year institutions during that period. Among colleges where graduation rates were below average in 2003, a similar pattern of slow growth and some declines also held.

An institution's graduation rate can change over time for many reasons, and colleges have more control over some than others. In interviews on and around the University of Akron's campus in November, students who had stopped pursuing bachelor's degrees offered a variety of reasons.

For Taylor Ayers, who started classes in summer 2008 and has an interest in designing and building bicycles, it was the feeling that his studies in mechanical engineering were too theoretical. "I couldn't find a reason I was learning," he says.

This past spring he switched to a two-year program in mechanical-engineering technology at Summit College, a division of the university focused on producing associate-degree graduates. There, he says, classes are much more focused on practical applications.

Laken Ward, who started at Akron in 2009, dropped out this year after conflicts with roommates and confusion over her financial-aid package.

She had misunderstood a conversation with the financial-aid office and thought the university was dropping her from classes because of a delay in processing her aid. By the time the misunderstanding was worked out, she had missed nearly three weeks. "I was so far behind already, I couldn't really catch up," Ms. Ward says. She is now working at a local restaurant and hopes to return to college.

Trying to Do It All

The University of Akron is working to grow and improve as the city around it struggles. Akron is one of many Rust Belt communities facing decline. The nation's tire industry, which started here, has dwindled.

The city's population has declined since 1960, falling 5 percent in the past decade. The poverty rate has grown, to 25 percent, about 10 points above the national average in 2009.

The university is downtown, amid old industrial buildings and highways. Concrete and brown-brick buildings from the cold-war era make up much of the campus, and students say the surrounding area is not particularly safe.

Campus leaders have pushed hard to change its uninviting look. Akron conducted a $500-million capital campaign and has put up 20 buildings, including a student center, over the past decade.

The facelift was part of a successful strategy to build enrollment, which has grown by more than 4 percent annually for the past several years, reaching about 28,000 this year.

But some officials say the university's ambitious growth plans have outpaced its efforts to graduate more students.

Since Luis M. Proenza became president, in 1999, he has talked about promoting student success, and the topic was named a high priority in strategic plans. But as enrollment grew, Akron, like other growing public institutions, found itself playing some catch-up on retention efforts, says F. John Case, who was vice president for finance and administration from 2005 to last March.

"Getting them in the door was great, but you have to help them once they're there," says Mr. Case, now a higher-education consultant.

Another concern: The growth in enrollment was accompanied by a rise in the proportion of part-time faculty, to nearly 60 percent. That is among the highest rates of all research-intensive universities, The Chronicle found. The part-timers were a cost-effective way of keeping up with the enrollment growth. But Akron's new provost, William M. (Mike) Sherman, says he wants to improve "the quality of the student experience" by hiring more full-timers.

Mr. Sherman and Mr. Proenza point to student demographics to explain the recent decline in Akron's graduation rate. "Very troublesome," the president calls it. "Do we fully understand it? No." But, he adds, "one measure doesn't tell the story, especially in metropolitan state universities."

Like some of those institutions, Akron has an open-admissions policy, he notes, essentially admitting all applicants. The average ACT score of entering students dipped for a few years, meaning that the students admitted were less prepared academically and therefore less likely to finish within six years. (The average is now on the rise, Mr. Sherman says.)

The influx of those underprepared students has, in effect, dragged down the graduation rate over time, Mr. Proenza says. He cites internal data showing that the graduation rate of students in the top two quartiles of ACT scores rose from 2003 to 2010.

But the federal government's one-size-fits-all reporting system does not account for such nuances. Nor will they be taken into account in Ohio's formula for distributing appropriations to state universities. Ohio is one of the few states to explicitly make graduation rates a part of its appropriations formula.

Mr. Proenza mentions another aspect of student demographics that influences Akron's graduation rates: the increasing tendency of students to take well over six years to graduate.

"Every year at the commencement ceremony, I ask students who took more than four years to graduate to raise their hands," he says. "And then I ask those who took 10 years to graduate. There are a few every year who raise their hands."

Mr. Thompson, who returned to Akron to complete his bachelor's degree, says he needed eight years because of a variety of personal circumstances. He failed several classes that he had to repeat, and he took just 12 credit hours at a time. In addition, he worked and served as a caregiver for his grandmother.

Even then, he says, he found it difficult to find a job in his major, social work. So he has returned to Akron again to work on a master's degree in the field.

Mr. Thompson's case is unusual, however. Nationally, only a slightly higher percentage of students graduate within eight years than within six years, according to the Education Department. (The agency has required colleges to start reporting eight-year graduation rates, and the first batch of such data covers the period ending in 2008.)

Finances Influence Delay

Other colleges contacted by The Chronicle about drops in their graduation rates also pointed to more students taking longer to complete degrees.

Financial pressures are partly to blame at Alverno College, says Sister Kathleen O'Brien, senior vice president for academic affairs at the private, master's-level women's college in Milwaukee. The graduation rate fell by eight percentage points, to 39 percent, from 2003 to 2008—at an institution that had developed a national reputation for systematically assessing the learning of its students. That was one the larger drops among private master's institutions.

Graduation rates for the period ending in 2008 predate the start of the recession. But in Milwaukee, the economy was already struggling, Sister O'Brien says. The city's poverty rate is among the highest in the country, and the percentage of students at Alverno receiving Pell Grants has risen to 63 percent.

"I think we're doing the right things, so I think it's more financial than anything," she says of the graduation-rate trend.

Officials at the University of Colorado at Denver, too, say financial pressures on students help explain a dip in the graduation rate there, from 39 percent in 2003 to 37 percent in 2008.

"As an urban research institution, the nature of our students means that they're employed starting at the freshman year," says John A. Lanning, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate experiences. "Even if things go well, they're hard-pressed to graduate by that six-year mark."

Increases in tuition and fees may be deterring students as well, he says. "We used to be a low-tuition-and-fees state for public higher education. Now we're in the middle of the pack. It's a big change, and state support continues to go down."

The Denver campus has made new efforts in the past five years, like starting a seminar program for all first-year students, to help undergraduates complete their degrees.

Akron is starting similar efforts to raise its graduation rate. They include adding 12 academic advisers to the existing corps of 60. In addition, the university has tested an early-warning system for faculty and staff members to identify students who are struggling academically, so Akron can offer them additional attention. That system is being put in place this year.

Mr. Sherman, the provost, began his job in June with a mandate to improve graduation rates. He came to Akron from a job at Ohio State University overseeing its regional two-year campuses, where some academically underprepared students go to prepare to transfer to the main campus at Columbus.

He wants Akron to raise its 33-percent graduation rate to 60 percent by 2020. It's an ambitious goal: That would be the highest rate of any large college that has open admissions.

At the same time, Mr. Sherman is planning for prospective budget cuts because of Ohio's fiscal difficulties. He does not expect Akron to have any new dollars to use to improve graduation rates. To free up money, he says, he will consider cutting academic programs that are underenrolled and unlikely to reach capacity.

"If we are really integrated in our planning across the institution, in terms of these goals and objectives," he says, "I think we can get" to 60 percent.

Money Isn't Everything

Some colleges have raised graduation rates with a variety of interventions (see article, Page A15). Few studies have examined how much they cost. Researchers at Cornell University found that colleges that spent more on student services, such as tutoring, tended to report increased graduation rates, especially if they enrolled many poor students with low test scores.

Many colleges with low graduation rates also tend to be less-selective institutions, with more underprepared students and less financing than at flagship public universities and elite private colleges, says Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of Cornell University's Higher Education Research Institute. Yet states' financing formulas for those colleges don't take that into account, either.

When colleges invest the effort, they often can move their rates, says Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector and a Chronicle contributing writer. But if no outsiders, like accreditors or trustees, are pushing them to do so, it's easy for them not to bother trying.

At least one incentive for change has come from two foundations that put grant money behind efforts to improve graduation rates—the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education. More than half of the $55-million awarded by Lumina in 2009 was focused on improving the academic success of students and their institutions, estimates Jamie P. Merisotis, Lumina's president.

Another impetus, although mostly a rhetorical one, is President Obama's goal for America to have the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. Given a college-age population projected to level off and decline, that will probably require a major increase in graduation rates.

Those new pressures are too new to have affected graduation rates yet. And several experts predict that the rates will continue to change only slowly, because improving teaching and student-support services across a campus is hard.

"It will take five, 10 years for them to start turning this oil tanker around," says Vincent Tinto, a professor at Syracuse University who has studied ways to raise graduation rates.

Getting "a fleet of small boats all to sail in the same direction," might be a better analogy, Mr. Tinto adds, given that control within many academic institutions is spread across their schools and colleges. Improvement, he says, depends "not on how many programs a university has, but how coherently they are aligned in a consistent way."

Jane Coaston and Alex Richards contributed to this article.