Thursday, June 24, 2010

Improving the Graduation Rate

Graduation rates in New Jersey

Improving the college and high school graduation rate would make for a good course topic.  The statistics show that we definitely have a problem and one you can easily quantify.  

According to US New and World Report, "Thirty percent of college and university students drop out after their first year. Half never graduate, and college completion rates in the United States have been stalled for more than three decades" (see "Dropouts Loom Large for Schools").  There are many reasons why students drop out, ranging from immaturity to lack of funds (see "The Dropout Dilemma"), but all of these problems can be addressed with careful programs to help students understand the importance of a college degree.  The problem is that the University does not have the resources to address the issue and has little incentive, especially since for every drop-out there are many more students looking to get into college.  However, if we made retention more of a priority, we could probably improve graduation rates in significant ways.  

The Lumina Foundation is one organization working to improve graduation rates.  According to their website, even New Jersey -- which has perhaps the best performance of any state in high school and college graduation rates for its citizens -- sees just over a third (35%) complete a B.A. or more advanced degree.  But 20% drop out of college.  That means we could top 50% if we could just address the drop-outs or if we could get more people completing an Associate's degree to get more schooling.

One reason we should be concerned about graduation rates is global competition for jobs.  According to Lumina's website,  the United States has seen less than 40% of its population complete a BA or AA for the past 40 years.  Forty years ago, 40% meant we were the most educated country in the world.  Today, it means we are nowhere close to the top.  That means our global competitiveness is rapidly declining.

But it is not just about college.  A lot of our declines start even earlier.  "Graduation rate for US high-schoolers falls for second straight year" was a recent headline, describing a national average of only 68% graduating high school.   Even in NJ, 13% never finish high school and a significant number resort to the GED to finish that degree.  According to an analysis of these data (see "How Cutting the Teen Drop Out Rate Could Stimulate the Economy"), the drop out rate has a significant economic impact.  Drop outs earn over $9,000 less each year than graduates, so that even cutting the drop-out rate in Trenton, NJ (our state capital) by 50% would raise the earning potential of those students by over $9 million per year (according to an analysis by the Alliance for Excellent Education).  

Improving the college and high school graduation rates should be a national priority because it would benefit all Americans in terms of more jobs and better tax rates in an increasingly competitive world.  So there are many rational reasons to resist the forces of privatization that are making it increasingly difficult for most Americans to afford higher education.

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