Most parents and teachers of gifted students and indeed, most gifted students themselves, assume they will go to college. They may even spend a great deal of time and effort, especially as they approach high school graduation, analyzing colleges and campuses. Students analyze which schools have the best programs and which dorms and amenities are the nicest. Students want to find the institute of higher education that best fits their personality and interests.
Getting into the right college is important. Getting out of the right college with a degree and little or no debt is even more important. Our institutes of higher education are far better at admitting students than graduating them. Even upper middle-class students with above average test scores only have a 50% probability of successfully graduating from college. Lower income, above-average students fair even worse with the poorest having only a 26% probability of graduating.
Individuals and our entire nation benefits when we have a higher percentage of college graduates. College graduates enjoy significantly higher earnings throughout their lifetimes and are less likely to experience unemployment or dependency on social welfare programs. This is not true of students that have taken college courses but have not successfully graduated. College graduates generally also have jobs with insurance benefits, are less likely to divorce, and are less likely to be victims of violent crimes or commit crimes themselves. They are also happier and more civically engaged. Increasing the number of college graduates will make our country stronger. This is especially true when considering the woefully low number of lower income, above average and gifted students who, under our current system, are not graduating.
Today two reports came out specifically addressing the need for higher college graduation percentages. The National Commission on Higher Education Attainment, a group composed of representatives from most major colleges and universities in the US, release An Open Letter to College and University Leaders: College Completion Must Be Our Priority. Separately as part of an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and endorsed by college presidents, business leaders, civil rights leaders, and policymakers, The American Dream 2.0 came out with a special emphasis on addressing financial aid issues to improve college access, affordability, and completion.
State and federal support for higher education has been steadily decreasing. State support for higher education declined by 7.6% in 2012 and sank in real terms by 25% since 2008. This decrease in state support correlates with an unprecedented increase in student debt. Total annual student borrowing skyrocketed between 2002 and 2012 and is now $113 billion. Lenders are generally happy to accommodate the increased financial needs of students because college loans are some of the very few types of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Large college loans, especially ones incurred in pursuit of a degree that was never obtained, can burden a student for life — affecting their future job flexibility and long-term financial security.
The American Dream 2.0 has three overarching recommendations addressing financial aid issues and improve graduation rates:
- Make aid simpler and more transparent
- Spur innovations in higher education that can lower costs and meet the needs of today’s students
- Ask institutions, states, and students to share responsibility for producing more graduates without compromising access and affordability
The College Completion letter offers concrete suggestions to colleges and universities for improving their graduation rates above and beyond better financial aid policies and packages. High school freshmen and seniors can use the report’s list (below) to evaluate whether institutions they are considering are actively working to increase graduation rates.
- Change campus culture to boost student success
- Unambiguously assign ownership and responsibility for enhanced student retention and graduation
- Implement initiatives campus-wide
- Study past mistakes
- Create a student-centered culture to enhance student engagement and retention
- Improve the academic experience, especially for those students that may need extra support
- Give credit for previous learning
- Provide support services for nontraditional students
- Teach the teachers to improve their teaching and communication skills
- Improve cost-effectiveness and quality
- Offer flexibility to working adults
- Ease credit transfers
- Encourage competency-based learning
- Deliver courses more efficiently
- Narrow student choice to promote completion
- Improve remedial services
- Optimize non-core services
- Make better use of data to boost success
- Pinpoint weaknesses in preparation
- Harness information technology to identify students at risk
- Communicate with students about progress to graduation
We need better data on graduation rates so that students can compare schools on the one item that really matters — what is their chance of successfully graduating with a degree and little debt. High school students should know the percentage of students that graduate in 4 years, 5 years, and 6 years from the colleges they are considering and how much debt the students had when they left the school. It is time for students to worry about getting out of college when they are first deciding on colleges to try to get in.