Higher education officials cheered this summer when President Barack Obama pledged to boost the U.S. college graduation rate to first in the world—after years of stagnation—and announced a $12 billion plan to produce 5 million more community college grads by 2020. Currently, community colleges enroll more than 6 million students in the United States.
It will be a huge challenge. Thirty percent of college and university students drop out after their first year. Half never graduate, and college completion rates in the United States have been stalled for more than three decades. "The overall record is quite bad, especially for African-Americans and other minorities," says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington that works to close achievement gaps. "The colleges want us to think everyone graduates, but in fact a huge number don't, and many leave with significant loan debts and job skills totally inadequate in the 21st century."
Four-year schools have their own set of academic retention problems, but the dropout problem is most acute in the nation's community colleges, where nearly a million students take remedial courses, mostly in English and math, each year. Studies show that remedial students are more likely to drop out. If they take two or more catch-up classes, their chances of graduating plummet. As Obama pointed out in announcing his community college initiative, it is this sector of higher education that conducts much of the nation's job training and that is most attuned to the employment needs of local business and industry.
Changing tradition. Enrollment is booming in community colleges as laid-off, middle-age professionals who are changing careers rub elbows with first-generation students in their late teens. Fully 15 percent of Colorado community college students have bachelor's degrees, and enrollment is up 32 percent, according to Nancy McCallin, president of the 13-college system that serves more than 107,000 students annually.
Meanwhile, private and four-year public schools that used to expend more energy recruiting students than retaining them are struggling to prevent students from dropping out or "dropping down"—moving from more expensive to less expensive institutions.
Stephanie Pazornick, a 20-year-old education major from suburban Baltimore, did just that. She left Towson University, a four-year state school, after one semester, moved back home, and enrolled in her local community college in Howard County, Md. "It was partly that I realized it wasn't a good fit," she says of Towson, "but finances played a big part. I figured I'd have two years of less debt and would get just as good an education."
At all but the prestigious four-year schools, which have generally high graduation rates, the nontraditional route to the degree is now the traditional pathway. Half of U.S. college graduates attend two or more schools. Shanna Snider of Denver, now 24, dropped out of a private four-year school (Texas Christian) and a public four-year university (the University of Texas-Arlington). Then she moved to Denver and graduated this spring with an associate's degree from the Community College of Denver.
Studies have shown that nonselective colleges graduate, on average, 35 percent of their students, while the most competitive schools graduate 88 percent. Harvard's 97 percent four-year graduation rate might not be that surprising, given that Harvard enrolls students who are among the most likely to succeed. But an analysis for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, released this year revealed a wide variance in rates among schools that have similar admissions standards and admit students with similar track records and test scores. Schools in the report were grouped according to their selectivity category as defined in Barron's Profiles of American Colleges 2009 guidebook. Among schools classified as "competitive," for example, Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., had a six-year graduation rate of 74 percent, while Texas Southern University's rate was 12 percent.
Steps to success. How can schools with similar student bodies have such widely varying retention and graduation rates? "Schools can increase graduation rates if they have strong leadership, if they're devoted to making student success a priority, and if they work at it," says Mark Schneider, a vice president of the American Institutes for Research and one of the report's authors. "The trouble is many don't work at it. Another trouble is that states are cutting back on subsidies, forcing tuition increases that are scary."