College Grad Statistics Require More Than Knee-Jerk Reaction
There’s a growing consensus in the policy world that the state has a serious problem with graduation rates in universities and community colleges and that many students are taking far too long to receive a degree.
UNC President Erskine Bowles has proposed tying enrollment and funding increases for each university campus to retention and graduation goals. The community college system has also launched initiatives to improve the graduation rate.
The issue is receiving more attention than ever as the state budget problems continue. Gov. Bev Perdue recently predicted that lawmakers will face a billion-dollar shortfall when they return for the General Assembly session that begins in May.
The anti-government forces have had a field day with the issue. One right-wing think tank has absurdly suggested that North Carolina doesn’t get much for its investment in the university system. Another has called for tuition increases of as much as 40 percent at UNC schools to reduce what they describe as the inappropriate public subsidy of a college education.
The anti-government crowd sees the struggles of the community colleges as a way to renew their call to dismantle K-12 public education, citing the number of community college students who need remediation or developmental classes in their first year.
All that was clearly on the minds of the university and community college leaders who appeared before a legislative committee Tuesday to discuss retention and graduation rates. UNC Vice President Alan Mabe told lawmakers he was not there to explain away the university’s numbers, but to look at other ways to “characterize what they do.”
Mabe and Community Colleges President Scott Ralls both talked about ways to improve graduation rates, but they also put the numbers in perspective. North Carolina’s experience is not unique. The four-year graduation rate at UNC schools is 35.2 percent, well above the national average of 26.7 percent at four-year public universities. UNC’s six-year graduation rate is 58.8 percent, also about 10 points better than the national average.
The numbers are too low, and they are also misleading. Mabe gave several examples of why. One is that students who took six years to graduate were enrolled an average of 8.4 semesters, just over four years of class time. Some left school during the six years for health reasons, others left to work to save money to return.
There are similar problems with the statistics about community college graduation and retention rates, though they are also above the national average. Ralls pointed that many North Carolina students leave community college before graduation for a four-year institution. In states like Florida, they leave only after graduating, but the difference in not reflected in the statistics comparing the states.
There are plenty more examples of how the numbers about graduation and retention don’t tell the whole story, but several things are clear after hearing Ralls and Mabe talk about graduation rates and their efforts to improve them.
The problems in North Carolina are faced by states across the country, and in many ways our state is doing a better job addressing them. And there’s still plenty more to do, particularly when students first get to campus. That will require more funding for programs and services that help students before they begin to struggle.
But none of this should weaken the support that lawmakers provide for higher education. That’s just what the anti-government think tanks are hoping.
It’s worth remembering that North Carolina’s founders believed a free higher education was not a subsidy, but an essential service to provide to the people of the state. It’s not free for students anymore, but lawmakers are still obligated to keep it as affordable as they can, while working hard to make sure state funding is used as wisely as possible. That includes working to improve graduation rates and help students graduate sooner.
Ralls listed the top five reasons students withdraw from community college. Three of them involve economic problems, lack of money, pressure from having to work full-time and having to care for dependents, often parents. Mabe cited similar issues as reasons students leave UNC.
That ought to leave lawmakers with at least two lessons about higher education. They need to pair more support for initiatives to improve graduation rates with their calls to improve them. And if they really want more North Carolina students to succeed in higher education, they need to do more to help their families so the students can afford to go to college and can afford to stay there.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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