by Mary Ellen Flannery
An increasing number of higher-education students in this country, mired in debt or misdirection, eventually leave their institutions without earning a degree.
This dismal rate of completion—overall, just about one third of students at two-year colleges and two-thirds at four-year colleges finish successfully—has become increasingly unacceptable to President Obama, who has called on America to lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020. Our nation’s economic prosperity relies on a well-educated workforce, he has said.
But the problems of college completion are complex—and a closer look at the data shows that the solutions won’t come cheap. It’s not enough to say that colleges simply need to be more creative. They’re also going to need adequate funding to pay for the services that help students along the road to a college degree.
“Research points to two things that will improve completion rates. First, the student needs to identify with at least one person at the institution, and then they need to attach as quickly as possible to a program that leads to graduation,” said Jim Rice, an English professor at Quinsigamond Community College in Massachusetts, and president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education.
Unfortunately, those kinds of student services and counseling or advising programs always are the first on the chopping block. And, the current budget pictures, which has “Republicans advocating for cuts, cuts, cuts, and no new taxes,” isn’t going to be much help, he added.
A CHANGING PICTURE
The fastest growing segment of college students in America is low-income, non-white, non-native-English speaking students who are the first in their families to go to college. These students face substantial obstacles to earning a degree: often they’re juggling multiple low-paying jobs, responsibilities around childcare or eldercare, and—oh yes, the academic demands of college classes!
Many of today’s students just aren’t ready for the academic rigor. (One study found that more than 70 percent of California community college students needed remedial classes in math.) And, complicating the picture even further, more come to campus with complex personal issues: One in three report prolonged experiences of depression, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“What would you guess our ratio of students to certified staff members is?” asks Gretchen Osterman, coordinator of Greek Affairs at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and a member of NEA Higher Ed and its affiliate, the State College & University Professional Association.
The answer: Not nearly low enough.
But hiring new counselors or student advisors often isn’t an option—not when states are slashing dollars for higher education. This year, state funding for higher education declined 7 percent on average. In Arizona, it fell 25 percent. In New Hampshire, it was slashed by a whopping 41 percent.
To cope with declining budgets, college administrators often are eliminating class sections, making it more difficult for students to get the credits they need to graduate; increasing class sizes, making it more difficult for students to connect with their professors; and turning to part-time or contingent faculty, who often work two or three different jobs on two or three different campuses.
“I look at the statements made about keeping costs low and I wonder, ‘How are you going to achieve that?’” Osterman asks. “I believe they’re envisioning a model with the absolute minimum of services.”
In a recent article in NEA’s journal of higher education, Thought & Action, art professor Gregory Scheckler suggests that maybe completion rates aren’t even the right measure of a college’s success.
Some of his students have left his school, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, for very good reasons: To seek addiction treatment, for example; or to pursue a non-art degree at a more comprehensive campus. Why should those students (all labeled “dropouts”) be counted against his college (and him), when their choices were good ones?
“What exactly is measured through enrollment, retention, and graduation trends? What do they tell us, if anything, about the personal path that the student chooses?” he asks.
It’s fair for students, parents, and community members to want to know if their tax dollars on higher education are well spent, Scheckler says. But completion rates—for those students who actually are attending college with the hope of getting a degree—should be just one of many measures of an institution’s success.
Additionally, whatever accountability systems are proposed for higher education, NEA believes faculty and staff need to be part of the decision making. NEA also believes those systems should take into account the diversity of students, and be adequately funded and staffed.
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