While graduation rate is not the only indicator of success, it’s a metric many prospective students (and accreditors) pay attention to when evaluating schools. Unfortunately, these completion rates aren’t as high as most colleges and universities would like.
At ReUp Education, we’re aware of how the declining U.S. college graduation rate contributes to the overall inequalities in society. That’s why we were so drawn to a recent piece in The New York Times. Driven by the desire to address the nation’s education gap, the Times, along with experts from the Urban Institute’s Center for Education and Data Policy, embarked on a large-scale project to analyze college graduation rates in the United States. In their interactive opinion piece “The College Dropout Crisis,” published on May 23, 2019, David Leonhardt and Sahil Chinoy shared much of this data and spoke to a number of higher education professionals about student retention strategies at their schools.
The research and interviews presented in this story certainly aligns with our goal of motivating stopout students to complete their degree. Here, we’ll share some of our key takeaways from the piece.
The Study: A Closer Look at the National Graduation Rate
The official 6-year graduation rate measures the percentage of students who start at one college and complete their degree at the same school within six years. (This is why graduation rates can be a bit skewed; they do not consider transfer students.).
For this study, the researchers explored graduation rates at 368 schools, a mix of large, small, public, and private. First, they calculated a school’s expected graduation (based on several criteria), and then they compared that estimate to the actual graduation rate. They also considered student characteristics such as income, race, gender, age, and test scores.
Once they analyzed the data, as Leonhardt wrote in a related column, “There is much cause for worry in our findings.”
The Findings: We Can Do Better
Perhaps what Leonhardt found so alarming was that, according to the data, college graduation rates varied significantly, even between schools with similar student populations. In fact, the research revealed the schools with the highest rates were “diverse in every way.”
“This suggests that the problem isn’t the students — it’s the schools,” the co-authors wrote, adding that since the issue is institutional, “a promising solution is staring us in the face.”
What they mean is that the struggling schools can take cues from their counterparts with higher graduation rates. This may start with improving retention. The official retention rate of a school considers the percentage of first-year students who return to the same school for a second year. This is why student retention strategies are most often focused on the first-year student experience, both in academics and campus life. A university student retention plan might include extended orientations, living-learning communities, more intentional advising, and dedicated services for niche groups like first-generation college students. But what about retaining students after their sophomore year? It’s short-sighted to only focus on programming meant to improve a school’s official first year “retention rate,” while ignoring struggling students who ultimately do not graduate.
The Goal: Increasing College and University Student Retention & Completion
Efforts to boost retention have been a priority at many schools for some time. University student retention plans vary greatly between institutions — in creation, execution, and success. Leonhardt and Chinoy discovered in their research that the colleges and universities with the highest graduation rate “simply seem to have been trying harder for longer.” In other words, these institutions prioritized retention and, thus, experienced increased completion.
But it’s not just energy and effort; increasing college graduation rates typically means increasing funding. The article points out that schools in states which “spend relatively little” on higher education (such as Nevada and Arkansas) are the ones with the lowest graduation rates.
Jeremey Bauer-Wolf spent some time on this topic in his July 2017 Inside Higher Ed article, “Money Matters.” He spoke to Gloria Crisp, an associate professor at Oregon State College; she’s part of a research trio that found students are more likely to graduate from colleges and universities with larger budgets. They published their findings in the journal Research in Higher Education. Crisp said that while there are many factors that can affect completion rates, oftentimes they’re economic.
“That tells us that the way to raise graduation rates is through support, both to the student and to the institution,” she told Bauer-Wolf.
Crisp and her partners are critical of how many states fund higher education. For instance, when states allocate funds based on graduation rate, institutions might raise their admissions standards. The paper explains that this could “effectively reduce college access for underserved groups.”
New Beginnings: Not Graduating Is Not the End
What Leonhardt and Chinoy didn’t mention in their article is that all hope is not lost when someone decides to leave college. Clearly, improved retention rates can lead to higher graduation rates. But there’s another option to boost these numbers: re-enrolling students who completed some credits, but did not finish their degree.
These inactive students are referred to as “stopouts,” and this group can include those who attended college for one semester, those who were close to completion, and everywhere in between. No matter how many credits they’ve earned, though, stopouts end up with the challenging educational status of: “some college, no degree.” And, often, they’re saddled with student loan debt without a diploma to show for it.
Re-enrolling stopouts, however, is something many schools aren’t readily equipped to do. They may lack the time and human resources needed to provide this type of research and outreach. Perhaps the school doesn’t yet have a complete understanding of the data to make the case, or if they do, there are higher priorities on the docket for senior leadership. Re-enrolling stopouts and seeing them through to graduation not only helps those students fulfill a goal and set them up for greater career success, but returning students also benefit an institution by bringing in found revenue and strengthening their alumni base.
A stopout student might not be proactive about returning to school. In fact, if you were to ask someone if they only planned on taking a temporary break, you’d probably get a resounding “Yes.” Even though they’re not enrolled in school, they’re likely keeping their career goals in mind — it’s just that life got in the way. However, with a friendly nudge and the right support, they can return to school, which ultimately opens them up to higher earning potential. Reaching out to these “forgotten students” in an intentional way is a step in the right direction.
The inequality in America — specifically the education gap — motivated the NYT to dig deeper into national graduation rate data. But these percentages are more than just a figure found on a school’s consumer information page; there’s a story behind each student and situation.
By understanding a student’s individual story — their reason for leaving and motivation to return — we can better support them on their journey to re-enroll and complete. Working with and serving students who’ve left school provides additional insight valuable to schools: By gaining a greater awareness of academic, personal, or economic barriers and obstacles that cause a student to stop-out, institutions can be more proactive in their student retention strategies.
It’s not easy, and it’s not overnight; however, there are solutions. Colleges and universities of all sizes would benefit from taking a closer, deeper look at their current processes and seeing what opportunities they can uncover.