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David Kirp says the graduation rates of most American colleges and universities are unacceptable -- they are simply too low. In The College Dropout Scandal (Oxford University Press), Kirp makes the case for dramatic improvements. A professor at the Graduate School of the University of California, Berkeley, he outlines his views in this email interview.

Q: How do you define the "scandal"? As you note, college graduation rates vary in part based on the students being educated. How can you tell (roughly) what success rates should be at different kinds of colleges?

A: “Give us better students and we’ll improve the graduation rate” -- that rationale for belittling the dropout crisis is often heard, but it’s dead wrong. As College Results Online, an invaluable source, shows, the graduation rates among colleges whose freshmen look the same on paper can vary by more than 25 percent, and the opportunity gap for undergraduates I call “new gen” -- underrepresented minorities, Pell Grant recipients and first-generation students -- can vary at least as much.

At some schools, including Georgia State, the graduation rate for these new-gen undergraduates is greater than the campuswide average. Elsewhere, the story is very different. For instance, the undergraduates at Cal State Chico mirror those at Eastern Michigan. But while 68.7 percent of Chico State students graduate in six years, just 40.7 percent of Eastern Michigan undergrads earn a bachelor’s degree. What’s more, the opportunity gap for new-gen students at Chico State is modest. By sharp contrast, minority students at Eastern Michigan graduate are half as likely to graduate as their classmates. That’s unconscionable.

Q: You write that there are strategies all colleges can use -- what are these?

A: Every college administrator with a pulse knows what can move the needle on the graduation rate:

  • Make smart use of big data, coupled with knowledgeable counseling.
  • Show students that they belong on the campus -- that they’re more than a revenue source for the college.
  • Rely on nudges to get students in the door and keep them on track.
  • Revamp or eliminate remedial math.
  • Redesign big lecture classes.
  • Provide minigrants to juniors and seniors for whom a few hundred dollars can be the make-or-break difference.

There’s no playbook that all schools can use -- the best approach depends on the culture and resources of the campus. But there’s no excuse for handwringing -- we know, from experience and research, that public colleges and universities can do much better by students generally and new-gen students in particular.

Q: You write about impressive efforts at places such as Georgia State, CUNY, Cal State Long Beach and elsewhere -- are there common threads to these institutions' approaches?

A: The schools I profile in depth vary widely, but their fundamental challenge is the same -- how can the institution promote a sense of belonging? What will enable students to understand that they are respected members of a community that cares about their well-being and will do everything it can to smooth the way to their graduating?

It’s critically important that the leadership at each of these schools made boosting graduation rates their top priority. Budgets are a way of demonstrating what matters, and how these institutions have allocated resources -- emphasizing counseling, for instance -- shows that this is more than a lip-service commitment.

When I asked these presidents and provosts why so many universities are falling down on the job, their answer was much the same: it’s hard work to move from a campus culture of fatalism to a culture that emphasizes potential, they told me, and no one gets fired because of the school’s high dropout rate. While universities do the easy things, like creating “learning communities” where like-minded students are brought together, many campus leaders are unwilling to invest the sweat equity that’s essential to boost student success.

Q: How much are resources a factor? Many of the colleges with low graduation rates are also not well financed. Does this matter?

A: The disinvestment in public higher education that we’ve witnessed since the 1980s obviously makes a difference. Where funding is generous, as in New York, it is possible to mount programs, like the well-known ASAP model at CUNY, whose up-front costs are high. But as a number of the places that I write about, like Valencia College and Georgia State, have shown, a lot can be accomplished on a pittance.

Q: What types of federal or state policies would get more colleges to take these issues seriously?

A: Policy makers and politicians have concentrated on increasing college access -- it’s become a big issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. While getting students in the door is important, making sure that they earn a degree matters more, both to those students, who will be better off in a host of ways, and to the rest of us.

Instead of rewarding colleges and universities for the number of students they admit, public dollars should be used to increase the number who earn degrees. This doesn’t mean rewarding schools simply on the basis of their graduation rate, because that might well lead them to set higher admissions standards and relax academic requirements. Instead, the focus should be on adopting policies that remove the biggest roadblocks.

One promising approach that several states have taken is to end remedial math and reading courses, requiring public institutions to combine college-credit classes and catch-up instruction. Another strategy is to deliver more money to institutions that enroll, and graduate, sizable numbers of new-gen students.

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