For decades, the American education system has led the world on almost every measure: The highest high school completion rate, the highest college-going rate, and the highest proportion of college educated citizens. Collectively, our colleges and universities are unparalleled, attracting students and scholars from all over the world.
But that prominence is now being challenged.
Over the past decade, the United States has slipped to 17th in the developed world in high school graduation rates, and seventh in college-entry rates. And we are no longer first in the proportion of young people completing a college degree.
Even more worrisome are the numbers for low-income students and students of color. These students are less likely to graduate from high school than their more affluent and white peers, and those who do graduate are less likely to be prepared for college or work. On top of that, low-income and minority students who go on to college are less likely to complete their degrees.
This is not acceptable. If our nation is to continue as a world leader, institutions of higher education must assume responsibility for helping every student they admit succeed. Right now, student success is not part of the way institutions of higher education -- or the people who run them -- are evaluated.
A college education is one of the main drivers of opportunity, social mobility and economic progress in our society. Yet far too many students who enter our higher education system fail to earn a degree.
Over all, only about 4 in 10 students who begin full time at a four-year college get a bachelor’s degree within four years and only about 6 in 10 get a degree within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Beginning Postsecondary Survey.
Completion rates are substantially lower for minority students and students from low-income families. While approximately two-thirds of white freshmen in four-year colleges obtain a degree within six years, fewer than half of African Americans and Latinos do so.
Nationally, there are 772 four-year colleges where at least 5 percent of the undergraduates are black. At roughly four in 10 of these schools, the six-year graduation rate for African American students is less than 30 percent. And at about one in five of these schools, the six-year African-American graduation rate is less than 20 percent.
Similarly, a quarter of all institutions with at least 5 percent Latino students have a Latino graduation rate of 30 percent or less. There are also significant differences in completion rates between students in terms of family income: 77 percent of students from high-income families graduate, compared to only 54 percent for students from low-income families – a 23 percentage point gap.
While these disturbing patterns -- low overall graduation rates and big gaps between groups -- have remained stubbornly consistent, the consequences of not graduating have changed drastically. People with a four-year degree or higher now earn much more relative to high school graduates than they did 30 years ago, and the gap increases with the level of the degree.
Our children must be educated to the highest levels, and unless we change current trends, we will become a society that is even more polarized by class and race.
The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is under way  in Congress, gives us an opportunity to help change these outcomes for students and provides lawmakers with several opportunities to promote better preparation for work, for college and for life.
Congress should first support state efforts to align the standards for exiting high school with those for beginning postsecondary study. With a relatively small investment, lawmakers could help states make sure that students don’t fall between the cracks separating high school from college, including linking their K-12 and higher education data systems.
Second, Congress should provide more money to students by committing to a five-year trajectory to recoup the buying power of Pell Grants. The financial burden of paying for college is a huge barrier for many young people. Low-income young people are particularly hard hit, because the relative value of Pell Grants has diminished by 50 percent since the late 1970s. Whereas Pell Grants used to cover 84 percent of the average fixed cost at a public, four-year institution, in 2001-02 they covered only about 40 percent of these costs.
Of course it would certainly help if more young people entered college well prepared and if they didn’t have to struggle to cover college costs, but preparation and ability to pay only tell part of the story.
That’s why Congress’ third goal should be to require states to put in place accountability systems that set stretch goals for student success for four-year colleges and universities.
How to Achieve Accountability
The traditional state role in regulating and funding higher education suggests that states are in the best position to hold institutions appropriately responsible for improving graduation rates.
States should have broad discretion in designing accountability systems that meet the needs and characteristics of their institutions, but, at a minimum, these systems should:
- Provide accurate, publicly available graduation rates, broken down by student’s gender, race, ethnicity and income status
- Set specific goals for improvement at each institution, both for overall improvement and for closing gaps between groups
- Require public reporting of institutional success in meeting graduation-rate goals
Too often success in higher education is measured in terms of increasing the so-called “quality” of students who are enrolled -- not whether those students earn a college degree within four, five or six years. Success should take account of not just the students who get into a college, but those who get out.
What is becoming increasingly clear is the critical role institutions themselves play an in ensuring success of their students. Our recent report on this issue revealed that some institutions, year in and year out, manage to graduate significantly more of their students than other very similar institutions – even when we account for student characteristics.
To help identify unusually high-performing colleges and universities, the Education Trust created College Results Online,  an interactive Web tool that allows users to select any four-year college or university in the nation, and compare its graduation rates to other similar institutions.
Some institutions stand out.
Consider Alcorn State University, a historically black college in Mississippi, At one point, Alcorn State was losing as much as 50 percent of its freshman class each year. Leaders there sent a study team to other colleges and universities around the country to find out what practices seemed to help institutions retain and promote their students. From that research emerged the College for Excellence, a concentrated two-year program that freshmen and sophomores must complete before being admitted to a major program.
The university has also worked to increase the quality of remedial instruction for students who enroll needing additional skills to be ready for college-level work.
Now, Alcorn State’s first-year retention rate has increased to almost 75 percent and its six-year graduation rate is better than the median of its peer institutions by about 10 percentage points.
Florida State University also is doing something right. It is a large public research institution with tens of thousands of undergraduates, nearly 12 percent of whom are African American. But unlike most such universities, only a few percentage points separate the success rates for white students and students of color. The 2003 six-year graduation rate for African-American and white students was 61.3 percent and 63.9 percent respectively.
The university makes a serious and coordinated effort to engage students: Advisers at Florida State are expected to contact every student at least three times a semester, and you’ll find advisers where the students are – in residence halls, the library and the student union. Many low-income and first-generation students also enroll in a seven-week summer program before their first semester to help ease the transition to college.
The results at these institutions demonstrate that colleges and universities play an enormous role in securing success for their students. Given the huge number of students who each year start college but never finish, it is vitally important that states and systems of higher education see increasing student success as a responsibility, not a choice. Real change to the Higher Education Act can help make that happen.