Higher Education Graduation Rates and Responsibility

National Public Radio’s Morning Edition recently aired a story with the following introduction by host Linda Wertheimer:

“State budgets are tight across the country, and this has some legislatures rethinking the way they fund higher education. Some states say the money they give to colleges and universities should be linked to results. A growing number say they will only increase funding for higher education if schools can produce more graduates.”

            In the report that followed, education reporter Larry Abramson interviewed the current Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education as well as a representative of an advocacy nonprofit organization called Complete College America concerning perceived low graduation rates at many universities and colleges, and whether that situation should be addressed by alternate state higher education funding strategies aimed at encouraging degree completion. Abramson used a quote from the NGO representative that highlighted the primary issue underpinning the debate: whether, or to what degree, timely graduation should appropriately be considered the responsibility of higher education institutions or the responsibility of those who attend them, but he did not focus on that concern. I want here to do so briefly, while suggesting the dilemmas this call for mandated targets and financial penalties highlights. None are “fixable” with policy formulas calling for increased rates of “credentialing” or “graduation” within stipulated mandatory targets.

            The basic concern at issue is a classic and difficult one for educators: how much can one hold a teacher or school responsible for student achievement and how much is appropriately the student’s responsibility? Or, given the fact that all efforts to educate are mediated not only by instructors and materials, but deeply also by student engagement, effort and capabilities and, for that matter, by parental involvement, how does one assign responsibility for educational outcomes? This policy initiative would hold universities and colleges primarily responsible for student achievement by employing a crude proxy measure of increasing student graduation rates on penalty of reduced public funding. One imagines this implies still further reduced funding, given the aggregate negative direction of state support nationwide for public higher education in recent years.

            This blunderbuss approach misses the mark in at least five ways. First, it imagines that graduating from college is equivalent to graduating from high school. Proponents of this view assume that there is little difference between reducing dropout rates for colleges and reducing them for high schools. And yet, the two types of institutions are distinctly different and play quite different roles, both for the individuals involved and for society. Advocates nonetheless assume a graduation is a graduation, regardless of the type of institution, field of study and past preparation.

            Second, proponents of this policy approach do not distinguish among types of institutions and the degree of control each possesses concerning who may matriculate. Many states mandate that community colleges and Land Grant universities, for example, accept all students meeting minimal residency and high school graduation requirements. An aggregate assignment of responsibility misses the fact that some schools, better positioned to be more selective, may be somewhat better able to enroll students who, on average, are more likely to meet course requirements successfully. That fact suggests a fairness issue not addressed by the broad measure of “process improvement” proposed.

            Third, this policy design imagines that all students come to higher education prepared for the curriculum they will address. Sadly, that is simply not so for many thousands of individuals who have otherwise gained a high school diploma. That fact implies that, at least for a substantial share of college-bound students in many states, it makes no sense to imagine that universities may begin their efforts on the basis of even a basic foundation of assumed capabilities.

            Fourth, this approach sets up perverse incentives for institutions. If they are to be funded in major part on the basis of how many students complete courses of study, that fact will likely encourage university and college leaders to ensure just that result, with obvious potential implications for quality standards and course rigor, all other things being equal. The old adage, “Be careful what you ask for,” applies here.

            Finally, this tack lays aside the complicated question of why public higher education institutions exist in the first place. Do we provide tax support to “credential” the largest share of the relevant populace feasible, whatever that may mean for the form and character of that education, or do these institutions exist for broader social purposes as well, including preparation of a democratically deliberative citizenry? That is, this approach begs the significant question of what the potential individual and social costs of defining higher education’s goals in purely instrumental terms may be.

            Nonetheless, what is most troubling about this policy course is how it permits elected and institutional leaders to assume, and therefore leads the population they serve presumably to share their view, that there is a single useful measure of higher education, or that graduation rates may be considered in a contextual vacuum. This new “reform” effort simply begs the questions implicit in the larger social concerns it purports to address: Is higher education a public good? How do we provide maximum educational opportunity while assuring substantive rigor and analytical heft in our curricula? Who shall we hold responsible for educational outcomes and why? How shall we ensure that all interested students possess both qualifications and an opportunity to pursue appropriate post-secondary education? None of these questions are technical ones. Pretending we can ensure educational opportunity and excellence with institutional process measures will not change that fact. Indeed, it will only mislead the population into imagining a simple fix exists for what is, in fact, an enormously complex concern. A democratic citizenry deserves leaders willing to ground policy-making in realities and not misleading bromides.