Like many of her peers, Malia Obama announced her college choice in time for the May 1st college decision day. Thanks to a 150-year history of federal financial support for higher education, anyone’s daughter in America, not just those from the elite classes, can enroll in college.  But, while the current financial aid system generates high enrollment, students who enter college accumulate high debt.  And sadly, only 39% of enrolled students will graduate, and most of those who succeed will be from highly educated and high income families, like Malia. Simply getting students to college is no longer enough: it is time to direct our investment toward student success and to assure an equal opportunity for all to actually graduate.  

Graduation rates matter because a degree produces economic and social benefits both to the nation and the individual. The Morrill Act of 1862 and the GI Bill of 1944 returned four and seven dollars to the economy for every dollar invested, respectively. Education was the primary force behind the rising middle class through most of the 20th century. But, those days are over. States are cutting support for public colleges and universities; tuition is rising to replace these lost investments, and students have to borrow more money to finance their educations. As a result, a student-debt crisis has emerged as a drag on the economy, and that debt is the highest for students who do not graduate.  

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A closer look at the data tells us where we are falling short: graduation rates depend on previous academic preparation and family history and income. In highly selective institutions, only 5% of students drop out after the first year, while 30% drop out of the least selective institutions. Drop out rates are highest for students from families with low incomes. In other words, institutions of higher education don’t seem to alter students’ trajectories toward success from their starting points.

Of course, it is easy for colleges to blame the K-12 educational system for not preparing students adequately. We’ve heard multiple faculty claim that “no matter what they do,” a nearly constant proportion of students will fail their class.  But, the fact is, if we are going to admit students (and charge them tuition), then institutions also need to bear some of the responsibility to work toward success. Underprepared students and their professors can't be expected to just know what to do to address the challenges of today’s reality —they need a model for a successful partnership and the resources to implement it. 

Ironically rising federal investments in higher education may have induced the problems that we now face. College enrollments increased from 2 to 20 million students between 1947 and 2015, with 15 million of these in public colleges and universities. Yet as access expanded, colleges and universities focused their effort and resources on handling the rising enrollments but didn’t make the adjustments necessary to ensure these students succeeded. By the 1980s, graduation rates began to decline. Today, the U.S. is ranked 22nd out of 27 nations in the ratio between enrollment and completion.   

Fixing the problem isn’t as daunting as the statistics suggest. It simply requires us to return to our roots: we must have more meaningful interactions with our students and provide the financial support that our forefathers intended when they expanded access to higher education beyond the elite class. Seem too good to be true? Just look at college athletics. In the last fifteen years, college athletic departments made a concerted effort to increase graduation rates, and they did it by providing intensive advising and skill development, such as coaching to improve time management, writing, and note taking. Today, student-athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body, regardless of gender and ethnicity. 

The same ideas can be just as effective for other groups. For example, graduation rates increased from 17% to 57% in the community colleges of New York City following the implementation of an experimental academic support program for a cohort of students.  Given its success, the program will be expanded to all full-time students for the small cost of a $3700 investment per student. 

Reform is clearly possible, but it must address both of the major challenges facing higher education. First, student debt must be reduced by extending eligibility for grants, rather than loans, to students from middle class families and to those who are successful in their studies. Right now, most Pell Grants are awarded to students from families making less than $30,000 each year. Given the rising cost of tuition, this threshold is no longer realistic and creates a socioeconomic gap in student enrollments.

Second, graduation rates must be increased without changing the type of students admitted or the current academic standards. Transformational change is possible: just look at what Title IX did for women's sports. In the same way, federal money can be used to incentivize institutions to develop plans to increase graduation rates and to demonstrate progress toward that goal. 

The U.S. spends upwards of $75 billion per year on higher education, but most of that money is spent simply managing the logistics of increasing enrollments. It is time for the U.S. to start monitoring its investment outcomes better. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is now being debated in Congress, provides the perfect opportunity to incentivize colleges, universities, and students to shift their resources to ensuring student success. 

The mortgage debt crisis led to an economic crash because irresponsible lending created a climate in which homeowners could not succeed. We've created a similar climate for students. But, we can avoid a crash this time, close the income gap, and launch a new middle class all at once if we act now. It’s time to hold Congress, colleges and universities, and students accountable to restore college graduation to a gateway to privilege rather than a symbol of it.


Tricia R. Serio is professor and head of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Arizona.  Martha W. Gilliland is retired, having been a professor of geology and engineering, dean, and vice provost of the University of Arizona, Provost at Tulane University, and Chancellor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Both are pubic voices fellows with the Op-Ed Project.