Most students do not graduate in 4 years, so the government counts 6 years as “success”

This article on college graduation rate was produced in partnership with The Hechinger report, an independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education.

Millions of freshmen are moving to college this fall, and 9 in 10 of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree are confident they’ll complete in four years or less.

If the story is true, however, less than half of them actually will.

Colleges have gradually crossed the finish line to take credit for success if students graduate in six or even eight years, which is the metric used by the government’s latest consumer-oriented government website, College Scorecard.

It’s like judging the success of an airline’s punctuality by including the percentage of its flights that take up to twice as long as expected to reach their destinations.

Researchers, policymakers and journalists have used the six-year measure without question. But now it is under further scrutiny as graduation rates stagnate, the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to make them even worse, and the Biden administration proposes to spend $ 62 billion to improve them. completion rate in institutions with a high proportion of low-income students.

While 90% of students enrolled in a national UCLA survey say they’ll graduate within four years – the most basic promise a university or college makes to consumers – only 45% of them do. will.

And less than two-thirds of students manage to complete even within six years, the education ministry reported. Completion rates are even worse for particular groups of students. Only about a quarter of black students and a third of Hispanic students graduate in four years, for example, according to government figures.

Asked repeatedly about why graduation rates are still measured in six-year increments, if it causes confusion among students and families, and what impact it has on pushing colleges To improve completion, the Ministry of Education responded by cutting, pasting and sending the text of the 1990 law without further comment or elaboration.

“They’re pulling a bait and a switch on the students,” said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of advocacy group Complete College America. “I dare say if you ask any institution what their graduation goals are, they’ll give you four years. Either they are wrong or they are not being honest about how the systems they have put in place work against it. What about producing your product within the four years you promised? “

It is possible for consumers to see the four-year graduation rates on another Department of Education website, College Navigator, but the six-year rates are displayed to them first. Graduation rates by race, ethnicity and gender are all reported over six years, not four years.

Accepting that less than half of four-year college students graduate in four years means recognizing that many face significantly higher costs than expected, while delaying the start of their careers. Some people run out of money and give up.

“If a family has a plan, they find themselves financially unable to reach their goal,” said David Bergeron, senior researcher at the Center for American Progress and former acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Teaching post-secondary.

Students won’t discover these long college chances themselves, either, and they should dig deep to learn them from the federal agency that regulates higher education.

How the six-year measure was born

The story of how America came to measure graduation from four-year over six-year colleges begins in 1989, as Sen. Bill Bradley, who played college and professional basketball, and his fellow Senators began to scrutinize the academic achievement of student-athletes, many of whom never graduated.

Until then, colleges, universities and the NCAA had not disclosed their graduation rates at all and bristled at the idea that they should. Since athletic eligibility covers five years, senators have proposed that colleges report athlete graduation rates over five years. Then they extended the requirements to all students, not just athletes.

After lobbying from universities and colleges, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose state was teeming with higher education institutions, added a last-minute amendment defining completion as obtaining a degree in ” 150% of “normal time”. “

The law was passed in 1990, although colleges were successful in delaying public reporting on graduation rates until 1997.

The move also creates little incentive for universities and colleges to improve these rates, which began to level off even before the Covid disruptions. The proportion of students who completed within six years increased by only three tenths of a percentage point in 2020, the smallest increase in five years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Students can extend their stay at university by arriving unprepared, taking too few credits per semester, working during their studies, changing streams, running out of money, or taking time off for family and other responsibilities. reasons. Colleges and universities can slow them down by accumulating additional requirements, not providing enough compulsory course sections, offering inadequate counseling, and being stingy in accepting transfer credits.

“Our expectation should be a four-year degree in four years,” Bergeron said. “Why are we setting this six-year wait, which makes people think it’s okay to make excuses not to do it in four years?” If we think it should take six years, isn’t it going to take six years? “

Some student advocates have a different problem with the way graduation rates are calculated: an increasing number of students are pursuing graduate studies in radically new ways that don’t follow a traditional timetable.

“For whom are we measuring this and for what purpose? ”Asked Peter Smith, former congressman, author of“ Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work ”and professor of innovative practices in higher education at the University of Maryland Global Campus.

“What we have to admit is that a four-year completion rate, where it works, works for a limited number of students,” Smith said. “The traditional model is moving towards truly lifelong, intermittent, back-and-forth education. And for some people, it’s four or two years.

But for most people, he says, that’s not the case. It means it’s time to find new ways to measure success.

“The counting system that we have – six years, eight years old,” Smith said, “really tells us how the traditional system is unable to meet these changing aspirations.”

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