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Distorted Statistics on Graduation Rates

Publication Date: 2007-07-03

The methods now used to determine college-completion rates produce a warped and outdated picture of how today's students experience and benefit from higher education.

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6, 2007

Undergraduate enrollments have grown sixfold in the last half-century and continue to boom; today more than 80 percent of high-school graduates go to college within approximately eight years of graduation. One might expect those accomplishments to be celebrated, but the expansion of higher education has been accompanied by ambivalence, anxiety, and opposition. As enrollments continue to climb, the intensity of criticism grows ever louder.

We are told that public colleges admit inadequately prepared students, that graduation rates are scandalously low, that students take too long to graduate, and that university graduates lack appropriate job skills. Last fall's report by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education followed suit in calling for more institutional accountability for what students learn and for graduating them faster and at less cost.

Many of the questions policy makers ask are distorted by conceptual blinders that evaluate today's undergraduate experience against a norm from an earlier era when students entered college immediately after high school, attended college full time, lived in dormitories, and rarely worked for pay because they were financially dependent on their parents. But such traditional students, whose needs and experiences still drive public policy, make up less than a quarter of today's undergraduate population. We need to focus on what higher education is, not what it once was.

It should come as no surprise that today's undergraduates ΓΆ€" often commuter students who typically juggle family or work obligations, or both, with college ΓΆ€" do not fare well on performance measures designed for a different kind of student. Today many undergraduates cycle in and out of college. They stop for a while or drop down to part-time status to earn enough money to pay for next semester's tuition, or for rent, or to have a child, or to accept a promising job opportunity. For such students ΓΆ€" remember, they are the large majority of today's undergraduates ΓΆ€" a college education is something that has to be fitted into the rest of life. College is no longer a phase of youth to be enjoyed before real life begins.

That became all too clear to us in the course of our long-term study of female college students and their children. We followed the women who entered the City University of New York system from 1970 to 1972, as the CUNY campuses began accepting all New York City high-school graduates. It took the students we tracked a long time to complete their degrees, but 30 years after entering college, 70 percent of women who had attended the CUNY system had earned a degree, and more than three-fourths of those had earned a bachelor's degree. In parallel analyses we conducted of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which until 2000 tracked students nationwide for 20 years, we found that the graduation rate was 61 percent. Even among the weakest prospects ΓΆ€" students who entered college with high-school averages of C or below ΓΆ€" we estimated that among recent national cohorts, about half are graduating in the long run.

What accounts for the discrepancy between the critics of higher education, who bemoan its shortcomings, and our research? The distressingly low graduation figures that scandalize critics are typically collected six years after college entry. They give the impression that huge numbers of students ΓΆ€" particularly economically disadvantaged and minority students ΓΆ€" fail to benefit from attending college. That approach measures success or failure far too soon. Working-class and minority students are taking longer than six years ΓΆ€" in some cases much longer ΓΆ€" to get through college, but many more of them ultimately cross the finish line than the short-term assessments imply. Recent government data indicate that more than 28 percent of bachelor's recipients get their degrees more than six years after entering college. Women, members of minority groups, and poor students tend to take longer than the average.

Despite delayed graduation, college makes a big difference in the lives of working-class students and their children. Two findings stand out. First, despite a huge increase in the college-educated population, the value of a degree has not eroded over time. For women, in particular, it has grown. While the students we studied who entered college with poor preparation or economic disadvantages did not earn as much as straight-A or middle-class collegians, poorly prepared students who attended college nevertheless earned 13 percent more annually than students from similar backgrounds who went no further than high-school graduation.

Moreover, after controlling for IQ, high-school performance, and family background, we found that even students who attended college but failed to graduate earned significantly more than equivalent students who never attended college. Thus when high-school counselors encourage their poor or academically weak students to aim for college, they are not misleading them.

Second, an important but underappreciated benefit of higher education is the impact that college attendance has upon the life chances of the next generation. We discovered that, when mothers from poor and working-class backgrounds went to college, they changed the way they raised their children. Their educational expectations for their children climbed, and their style of interacting with them was affected, compared with similar women who never attended college. College mothers became more involved in their children's schools and turned into advocates for the kids. They took their children to museums, zoos, and theaters, or provided other forms of cultural enrichment. They involved themselves more in community and church groups. In combination, such parental activities associated with maternal college attendance improved their children's educational performance, whether measured by test scores or chances of college entry. In short, maternal collegegoing interrupts the cycle of poverty.

The picture that our research uncovered was not one of unalloyed success. The disadvantages of race and class continued to stretch across generations, so that children of minority and poor mothers who attended college were less likely to succeed educationally than children of white and affluent mothers. College access did not erase disadvantage for everyone. On average, however, we found that maternal collegegoing had a significant positive impact on the prospects for the second generation among various disadvantaged groups.

If we are to have accountability and benchmarks for higher education, then let us measure what matters for our society: the long-term impact of educational access upon college students and their offspring. Adopting measurement systems that count disadvantaged students as failures because they take longer to graduate will inevitably make those institutions that serve working-class and minority students appear inefficient, while ensuring that colleges that enroll more-affluent students look highly productive. That is not accountability or fiscal prudence; it is an excuse for further cuts in financing for public universities and camouflage for reversing past gains in access to college.

Instead, we should concentrate on the aspects of educational policy that stack the deck against disadvantaged students. Although our study documented the success of many of those students, we also saw the obstacles that they faced:


Skyrocketing tuition at public universities that makes college less affordable for working-class and middle-class students alike. In the last 30 years, the percent of the costs of attending a public four-year college covered by Pell Grants has fallen by nearly one-half, winching up the pressure on poor students.

Punishing reductions in government aid for students who work their way through college. Part-time students are made ineligible for certain kinds of assist-ance, yet financial stress pushes students to take fewer credits to accommodate longer work hours. When economically stressed students stop out of college to earn money to meet tuition, their temporarily increased earnings reduce their aid eligibility for the following year. It's a Catch-22.

Federal requirements that most college students be classified as dependent on their parents until they are roughly 23 years old, thus reducing their aid. That is unrealistic for students from poorer families who have been financially self-supporting since their late teens. They can't or won't take money from their struggling parents (if anything, their parents may ask for their assistance), while they soldier on with grossly inadequate aid.

We can cling to an increasingly unrepresentative image of undergraduate life and document through statistical measures that universities filled with working-class and minority students do not live up to that privileged benchmark. Or we can acknowledge the emergence of a system of mass higher education and develop policies that recognize that collegegoing has profoundly changed.

Paul Attewell and David E. Lavin are professors of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and co-authors, with Thurston Domina and Tania Levey, of Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations? (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).

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