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To increase the value of higher education, help more students graduate

A tassel with 2023 on it rests on a graduation cap as students walk in a procession for Howard University's commencement in Washington, Saturday, May 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
A tassel with 2023 on it rests on a graduation cap as students walk in a procession for Howard University’s commencement in Washington, Saturday, May 13, 2023.

About 2 million college seniors will graduate this month. Young adults across the country will don academic robes, march two-by-two past their proud, teary families and stand a little taller as they commence into the world of college graduates. 

But in quadrangles, gyms and auditoriums across the country, fewer chairs will be set up than expected when these students entered college four years ago. Based on research I conducted using the most recent Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which is from 2019 — before the onset of COVID-19 — on average, four-year colleges graduate only 51 percent of their students, with many colleges graduating less than one-third of their students. Only 10 percent of colleges graduate at least 80 percent of their students.

Despite the increasing cost of higher education, studies continue to show that the return on investment for a four-year college degree is overwhelmingly positive — with college graduates being more likely to be employed, having higher income and even living longer than people without college degrees. 

So, isn’t higher education worth the investment? New research indicates that higher education’s value is highly dependent on something often taken for granted: graduation.

If one graduates, the tuition will have been a good investment. The problem is that, at many four-year colleges, students have no more than a 50-50 chance of graduating. Much of this has to do with resources: Colleges with lower graduation rates have significantly smaller endowments per student, more part-time and adjunct faculty versus full-time faculty and lower instructional spending per student. Disturbingly, low-income and first-generation students are far more likely to enroll in institutions that have limited financial and faculty resources and low graduation rates.

In the past, public support for higher education has turned on the argument that education promotes social mobility. From President Lincoln’s inspiration to create public universities to the current funding of the Pell Grant program to support low-income students’ tuition payments — American higher education has proffered a “rags-to-riches” narrative. This is a country where the confluence of public education, individual freedom and economic opportunity makes possible the movement from poverty to the middle class, or even wealth, in a single generation. The role of higher education in this American promise is in trouble — particularly as colleges with the lowest graduation rates are also the colleges with the most low-income and first-generation students.

Political debates about the cost and quality of higher education are growing to a fever pitch with proposals to tax college endowments more and greatly reduce or eliminate the system of full-time, tenured faculty. Before getting too excited about these seemingly quick fixes, we would do well to think again about one of the most significant problems in higher education — low graduation rates. Before we weaken the financial and faculty strength of higher education institutions, we should be doing more research on what works, so that our policies do not compromise the student experience and reduce students’ chances of earning a degree. 

Non-completion hurts students and their families, who after investing a year or two into tuition, often find themselves with a debt burden and no degree. Without a degree, students miss out on the employment, income and lifetime benefits associated with college education. And if missed opportunities for students and their families are not devastating enough, the country also loses competitiveness in the global scramble for talent.

Solutions, sadly, are hard to come by without further information. Increased philanthropic and publicly-funded support for institutions serving low-income and first-generation students, ideally, beginning in high school and extending through college, could be impactful. Rather than using the endowment tax on wealthier institutions as a budget-relieving measure, send these funds to the poorly endowed institutions that need them most. Discover what institutions with limited resources that nonetheless have higher graduation rates are doing that could be replicated more broadly to elevate performance with existing resources.

Higher education is a key leverage point for improving our collective future. But as the higher education sector looks now, we have to ask — are we capitalizing on this national resource? It is time to face facts: only 200 of the more than 2,100 four-year colleges graduate at least 80 percent of their students, and many young people who are not in the top colleges incur substantial debt without earning a degree. 

As the newly minted graduating Class of 2023 hurl their caps in the air at commencement, let’s recommit to strengthening our institutions of higher education so that the other half of the class may also reap the benefits of a college degree.

Elizabeth Bradley is the president of Vassar College.

Tags college graduation rates Cost and financing issues facing higher education in the United States Higher education in the United States Politics of the United States university endowments

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