College is not just about getting in, but getting out

College is not just about getting in, but getting out
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This is the week when many of next year’s 2.3 million college freshmen will officially choose where to attend school next fall as a part of college signing day. It is an exciting and important moment in the lives of those students and their families. But only about 60 percent will ever earn their degrees, meaning nearly 1 million of today’s joyous families will soon likely feel like failures. We would never accept a graduation rate this low in America’s high schools, and we shouldn’t for America’s colleges and universities.

College graduation rates aren’t grabbing headlines. They aren’t as sexy as celebrities cheating and bribing to get their privileged kids into elite schools. They don’t sound as scary as massive student debt figures setting off the alarms. But they should be.

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The cost of non-completion is enormous — for students and the country. If college graduation rates mirrored those of America’s high schools for just one year, we could increase employment by over 107,000 workers, reduce the number of people in poverty by nearly 50,000 and increase tax revenue by more than $90 billion over their lifetime, based on our analysis in a report we recently issued.

And as for that massive student loan bill?  Non-completers are three times more likely to default on their loans than college graduates. That’s because non-completers took out loans but will never see the added earning power a college degree provides — a premium greater than $17,000 more annually for the median bachelor’s degree holder.

Where students enroll matters a lot when it comes to graduation outcomes. Schools like Harvard and Yale, with their top tier students and massive resources, graduate almost 100 percent of their students. But more than 1,000 four-year schools graduate fewer than half of their students, and some graduate as few as 25 percent. Despite these dismal outcomes, these schools still get billions of dollars in federal grants and loans, even though they fail to set their students up for success.

Up to this point, Congress has done little to address this completion crisis, but there are answers that could make a lot of difference. States have recognized the need to improve and have set attainment goals and have made completion a priority in funding models. Some colleges have made this recognition. Georgia State University has drastically improved by creating emergency grants so unforeseen expenses weren’t derailing students. The University of Central Florida has used predicative analytics to understand why students weren’t completing and made changes to address the problems. The City University of New York implemented a program to make sure low-income students had the needed support to complete their degrees.

These schools are making improvements in the lives of the students who benefit most from a college degree. They each have improved graduation rates while maintaining their commitments to serving low-income students and students of color. Georgia State University itself graduates more black students than any non-profit in the country.

Congress will have a chance this year to make much needed change through a bill that actually has bipartisan cooperation, the Higher Education Act. Both parties realize the status quo isn’t working and appear open to making student outcomes a priority as they reauthorize this massive piece of legislation. As we learned in our recent poll, college and universities are open to being held accountable for the outcomes of their students. Making sure more students complete the degree they seek is an urgent issue because no one goes to college to end up worse off.

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Decades ago, high school graduation rates were abysmal. Congress stepped in and ultimately improved K-12 performance through much of the nation. If poor high school graduation rates were unacceptable then poor college outcomes should be unacceptable now. By making completion a priority and holding institutions accountable for the outcomes they produce, Congress could ensure students and taxpayers get a real return on their higher education investment.

If we succeed at getting more students who enter college to graduate, we could transform lives and equip many more Americans to achieve that stable and secure life they seek. Then college signing day could be a joyous occasion for more knowing they’ll get to celebrate walking across that stage a few years later.

Wesley Whistle is policy advisor at Third Way, a center-left think tank.

Jim Kessler is executive vice president for policy at Third Way.