The Right Way Forward on College Completion

This fall, 2.5 million students will enroll in college for the first time. But how many will actually complete their degrees? A lot fewer than you might expect. Less than half of students at four-year colleges graduate within six years, and not even 40 percent of students at two-year institutions finish within three. For these students, dropping out comes at a cost of thousands — or tens of thousands — sunk into tuition and student loans, with little benefit on the job market, and without much else to show for it other than wasted time and energy.

Yet, when higher education shows up on cable news or in political speeches, this issue rarely merits a mention. Instead, there’s a rush to talk about ways to get more people into college or have taxpayers subsidize more of the cost. The thing is, it doesn’t matter how many students enroll in college — what matters is how many earn a degree. Otherwise, all this new college spending amounts to throwing good money after bad.

So, what might be done? One answer is to pass a law which punishes colleges that don’t get their graduation rates up, or rewards the colleges that do. Such an approach is simple, appealing — and dumb. It would give colleges incentive to boost their graduation rates by admitting only the most accomplished students, shutting the doors of opportunity on many others.

Colleges would also have cause to act more like diploma mills, doing whatever it takes to ensure that students get their credentials — even if it means cutting corners, giving a pass for subpar work, or just offering Mickey Mouse classes. In other words, if policymakers order colleges to graduate more students, it’s a safe bet that colleges will find a way to do it — even if the results look nothing like what those policymakers had in mind.

If policy-fueled accountability isn’t the answer, then what? If the goal is to maximize the chance that those students able and willing to do the requisite work will earn their degrees, there are a number of promising initiatives worth exploring. Those mentioned here, and a number of others, are sketched out in a new book on college completion, issued jointly by the American Enterprise Institute and Third Way.