SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Revisiting the Subject of Four-Year Graduation From College
It's funny how the talk of improving four-year graduation rates at University of North Carolina schools always seems to coincide with state budget woes.
Of course, it's no coincidence. The state subsidizes the cost of higher education at the 16 public university campuses, as it should. Otherwise they wouldn't be public institutions, would they?
The sooner students graduate, the less subsidy per student.
So, when budget crunches come around, the talk at the legislature and in university administrators' offices inevitably turns to trying to figure out ways to get students out the door more quickly.
Legislators come up with bright ideas like charging students more for staying in school past four years. Administrators wring their hands and revise student advisory programs to try to move students on their way.
These days, University of North Carolina system president Erskine Bowles is proposing holding individual schools accountable for their retention and graduation rates by tying those rates to money for additional enrollment.
Outside academia, a conservative group based in Raleigh suggests giving bonuses to faculty based on freshman retention.
I have another suggestion: Allow students to pay professors a few bucks for a few extra points on a test. Students will avoid Ds and Fs, getting more credit hours and moving more quickly toward graduation.
Such a system will surely garner national recognition. It did when a Wayne County middle school tried it.
Setting aside the sarcasm for a moment, does anyone really believe that these other alleged solutions wouldn't have the same effect as purchasing grades, that is, promote grade inflation and devalue college diplomas?
Bowles' idea, on its face, seems like a good one. Perhaps schools shouldn't be getting more money to enroll new students if they aren't graduating the ones already there.
Taking money for new enrollment will certainly get the attention of administrators. But it will also give them an incentive to lower academic standards, the easiest path to higher graduation rates.
Not that lowering standards hasn't already been occurring, especially when college administrators become obsessed with bogus U.S. News & World Report rankings that emphasize graduation and retention rates instead of learning.
One study shows student grade-point averages at public universities rising by 0.6 points over the past 15 years.
Seemingly missed in all this fuss is how much student bodies, especially those at public universities, have changed since the 1950s and '60s, when most students graduated in four years.
Today, most students aren't affluent. Many work. Most don't have some life path set out in front of them.
That kind of diversity tends to happen when you expand enrollment. Since 1980, the number of students enrolled at UNC campuses has nearly doubled.
The increase in enrollment is no accident. Policymakers have made a conscious decision to improve access to higher education. But improving access isn't simply a matter of admitting more students.
It also involves understanding that more will take longer to graduate.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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