Do Higher-Ed Policies Make It Harder for Low-Income College Students to Graduate?

Federal financial-aid programs usually cover only 12 credit hours per semester. That automatically puts students on a five-year graduation path.

National Journal
Janell Ross
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Janell Ross
July 9, 2014, 10:27 a.m.

The golden im­age of col­lege stu­dents walk­ing brick-paved paths to at­tend small classes in ivy-covered build­ings hasn’t matched the real­ity of high­er edu­ca­tion for a while now. Nearly half of U.S. col­lege stu­dents com­mute to classes at open-en­roll­ment com­munity col­leges and have nev­er lived or stud­ied in a dorm. Many of those stu­dents juggle fam­ily and oth­er re­spons­ib­il­it­ies between classes, work to cov­er liv­ing ex­penses and tu­ition, and don’t have the cred­its to gradu­ate after four years. 

Yet when poli­cy­makers talk about boost­ing col­lege gradu­ation rates, they of­ten seem to have an an­ti­quated ideal of col­lege in mind. A pair of stud­ies re­leased this month by the Cam­paign for Col­lege Op­por­tun­ity found that ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion about how stu­dents pur­sue col­lege de­grees and how long it takes them are two of the most crit­ic­al but poorly un­der­stood as­pects of high­er edu­ca­tion policy.

The stud­ies ex­am­ine stu­dent pat­terns at Cali­for­nia’s net­work of state uni­versit­ies and com­munity col­leges. To­geth­er these in­sti­tu­tions make up the largest pub­lic high­er-edu­ca­tion sys­tem in the coun­try, serve one of the na­tion’s most di­verse stu­dent bod­ies, and re­flect pat­terns that have come to define the mod­ern col­lege ex­per­i­ence in the United States.

At Cali­for­nia’s four-year uni­versit­ies, half of all stu­dents spend more than 4.7 years in school, the first study found. These stu­dents col­lect­ively spent over $220 mil­lion more in tu­ition, fees, and room and board than they would have if they had fin­ished with­in four years. They fore­go even more in wages. Most stu­dents wind up tak­ing mul­tiple courses they do not need to gradu­ate. And sig­ni­fic­ant shares—par­tic­u­larly among black and Latino stu­dents—do not gradu­ate at all.

The cam­paign’s second re­port painted an even more grim pic­ture for stu­dents at­tend­ing the state’s com­munity col­leges. Half of stu­dents en­rolled in two-year pro­grams, de­signed to lead to an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree or trans­fer to a four-year in­sti­tu­tion, spend more than 4.1 years com­plet­ing those classes.

“That’s im­port­ant be­cause we know that the longer stu­dents spend in school, the less likely they are to fin­ish,” says Michele Siqueir­os, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of The Cam­paign for Col­lege Op­por­tun­ity. The cam­paign is a Cali­for­nia-based non­profit in­ter­ested in boost­ing the share of stu­dents who at­tend col­lege and keep the state eco­nom­ic­ally com­pet­it­ive.

The cam­paign’s re­ports de­pict gradu­ation and en­roll­ment trends in Cali­for­nia in the 2011-2012 school year, but also closely re­flect na­tion­al stu­dent en­roll­ment, gradu­ation, and col­lege cost trends, says Stan Jones, pres­id­ent of Com­plete Col­lege Amer­ica, an or­gan­iz­a­tion do­ing sim­il­ar work across the coun­try.

“What we see in Cali­for­nia is part of a pat­tern that’s sur­pris­ingly con­sist­ent from state to state,” says Jones. “Our pic­ture of this 19-year-old go­ing off to col­lege is just not true. And stu­dents just aren’t gradu­at­ing in the num­bers that we would like to see them gradu­ate. It’s all pretty dif­fer­ent than the myth you see in the movies.”

Across the coun­try, just un­der 40 per­cent of all stu­dents earn a bach­el­or’s de­gree in four years, Jones says. And less than 60 per­cent man­age to do so after six, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al edu­ca­tion data. Nearly half of all stu­dents—in­clud­ing the ma­jor­ity of black, Latino, and low-in­come stu­dents—at­tend com­munity col­leges. Only one-quarter of all U.S. stu­dents at­tend a four-year, res­id­en­tial col­lege and gradu­ate with­in four years, says Jones.

The Cam­paign for Col­lege Op­por­tun­ity re­ports re­com­mend a num­ber of meas­ures to boost gradu­ation rates and re­duce the time and money that in­di­vidu­al stu­dents, their fam­il­ies, and gov­ern­ment col­lect­ively spend on col­lege. The re­com­mend­a­tions in­clude more ex­pli­cit and fre­quent con­ver­sa­tions with stu­dents and par­ents about the way that time spent in col­lege and semesters spent in re­medi­al classes can neg­at­ively af­fect gradu­ation odds. The study sug­gests that stu­dents should only be re­quired to take courses that bol­ster the types of math or writ­ing skills that will sup­port the kind of work they hope to do — mean­ing stat­ist­ics, prob­lem solv­ing, and quant­it­at­ive ana­lys­is rather than al­gebra and cal­cu­lus for stu­dents who are not in­ter­ested in sci­ence, medi­cine, or en­gin­eer­ing. And those placed in re­medi­al courses should par­ti­cip­ate in ac­cel­er­ated pro­grams or those that sim­ul­tan­eously help stu­dents brush up on ba­sic skills while also mas­ter­ing new, col­lege-level con­cepts in cred­it-grant­ing courses.

The re­port also calls for a shift in on-cam­pus aca­dem­ic ad­vising that en­cour­ages stu­dents to en­roll in a min­im­um of 15 cred­it hours each semester and de­vel­op­ing clear and pro­scribed course path­ways for all de­gree pro­grams. Most “full-time” stu­dents in Cali­for­nia and in schools across the coun­try en­roll in about 12 cred­it hours, the max­im­um grant and oth­er low-cost fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid pro­grams will cov­er in a giv­en semester. But that en­roll­ment pat­tern auto­mat­ic­ally put stu­dents on a path to gradu­ate in five years. Stu­dents need to en­roll in a min­im­um of 15 cred­it hours a semester to gradu­ate in­side of four years.

In Cali­for­nia, about 80 per­cent of stu­dents took just 12 cred­it hours dur­ing the 2011-2012 school year, the re­ports found. State aid and high­er fee struc­tures at pub­lic col­leges and uni­versit­ies make it pos­sible for stu­dents to take up to 15 cred­it hours without a need for ad­di­tion­al fund­ing. In oth­er states that is not the case.

Many stu­dents have been en­cour­aged or even ad­vised to take just 12 cred­it hours be­cause they will have to pay for any­thing more, bor­row the funds to cov­er the costs, or find schol­ar­ships that will do so, says Siqueir­os, with Col­lege Op­por­tun­ity. In at least five states, col­leges have com­mit­ted to en­cour­aging stu­dents to en­roll in 15 cred­it hours, Jones says. Oth­er states are ex­per­i­ment­ing with ac­cel­er­ated re­medi­al edu­ca­tion and laws re­quir­ing stu­dents to de­vel­op a de­gree plan after one year in school. 

The drive to en­roll stu­dents in more classes shouldn’t be in­ter­preted as li­cense for stu­dents to roam freely through their schools’ course cata­logues, the re­ports sug­gest. In stark con­trast to the idea that col­lege is a time for self-dis­cov­ery and ex­plor­a­tion, both Siqueir­os and Jones sug­gest that stu­dents need reg­u­lar ses­sions with aca­dem­ic ad­visers, clear aca­dem­ic and ca­reer plans, and, prefer­ably, course pre­scrip­tions that will get them there as quickly as pos­sible.

That’s part of the ex­per­i­ence at many elite schools. Even at oth­er col­leges and uni­versit­ies, stu­dents en­rolled in pro­grams such as nurs­ing and en­gin­eer­ing where a dis­tinct list of courses must be taken in a pre­de­ter­mined or­der, these stu­dents gradu­ate at a high­er rate than oth­ers, Jones says.

It’s little won­der that so many stu­dents spend more than four years in col­lege, says Richard Veder, an Ohio Uni­versity eco­nom­ist who stud­ies eco­nom­ic is­sues in Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion. Four- and six-year gradu­ation rate data is avail­able be­cause of a fed­er­al man­date, says Veder. But col­leges have little to no in­terest in re­veal­ing what share of stu­dents nev­er gradu­ate, or how long it takes stu­dents to earn a de­gree with only the equi­val­ent of 12-cred­it hours each semester. Worse still, many stu­dents don’t un­der­stand the way that the sys­tem and cul­ture at their school shapes gradu­ation rates.

A few years ago, Ved­der ex­amined the cost of at­tend­ing ex­pens­ive, elite pub­lic and private in­sti­tu­tions such as the Uni­versity of Chica­go and North­west­ern Uni­versity — where most stu­dents gradu­ate in four years — to the cost of at­tend­ing a com­munity col­lege in the Chica­go area. When Ved­der ac­coun­ted for the ad­di­tion­al time that stu­dents at­tend­ing the com­munity col­lege spent in school, the cost sav­ings nearly evap­or­ated.

“It’s in­cred­ibly com­plex, and — I sup­pose you could ar­gue — po­ten­tially de­press­ing,” says Ved­der. “It all cer­tainly runs counter to our idea that every­one should go to col­lege, and that every col­lege is equal and good.”

CLA­RI­FIC­A­TION: This art­icle has been altered to cla­ri­fy dif­ferne­ces between Cali­for­nia high­er edu­ca­tion grant fund­ing and that of oth­er states.  

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