Study raises questions about accuracy of statistics showing low college graduation rates for United States

A recent study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that in the last five years, taxpayers spent $9 billion on college dropouts, but before asking why people are paying hefty sums in state and federal financial aid for students to complete their freshman — and only — year of college, many have wondered whether United numbers accurately reflect college graduation and dropout trends.

One problem lays in the definition of a college dropout, according to Associate Commissioner for External Affairs at the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, Katy Abel. The graduation rate for U.S. four−year colleges within six years is just 53 percent, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education based on full−time students who entered 1,400 colleges and universities as freshmen in 2001. But students are only considered to be college graduates if they obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years of attending college.

Abel explained that often times at community colleges and state universities, students raise families or work while they go to school. Such situations often result in college degrees that take students more than six years to complete — but are college degrees nonetheless. Students might enroll for a few years, leave to work and earn money and eventually return, using the earned money to pay for the remainder of their education.

Additionally, students who transfer out of colleges and universities and into others are often considered dropouts simply because they did not earn their degrees from the institutions in which they began their college careers.

“Some students use community college as a stepping stone to other opportunities — some of them leave before graduation to transfer to other institutions,” Abel told the Daily. “This ‘stepping stone’ approach isn’t failure; sometimes they are moving on to a greater academic challenge. But for the community college, that student’s departure counts against their overall graduation rate.”

Weverton Silva, a sophomore and transfer student from Bunker Hill Community College, is currently enrolled in Tufts as an economics major with a full scholarship. After dropping out of high school when he was 15, Silva obtained a General Education Development (GED) diploma at Bunker Hill Community College before transferring to Tufts. Despite his current enrollment at Tufts, his departure from Bunker Hill means that he is still considered a dropout.

Silva believes that dropout numbers would be much more accurate if the progress of each student were independently tracked, she said.

“The only way to know if your tax money is working is to track results.”

Another heated debate prompted by the announcement of the large sum of money allocated to dropouts’ education is whether sending eventual dropouts to college for a single year is worth taxpayers’ money.

According to Mark Schneider, vice president of AIR and former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost resulting from college dropouts is an unnecessary strain on taxpayers, since these college dropouts are not obtaining their bachelor’s degrees. The organization’s study, Schneider writes on the AIR website, shows that during a time when universities face financial struggle, a needless amount of money is being spent on students who will not fulfill their academic goals.

Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, believes that even one year in college is beneficial to society, however.

“We find that obtaining some college education without completing a B.A. does boost students’ civic engagement, although not as much as completing college does,” Levine said.

Still, there are better ways to use tax money in order to improve American education and increase graduation rates, according to Levine. In its goal for American graduates to constitute the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020, the Obama Administration’s hardest task will be allocating tax money carefully, according to Levine. Many students drop out of college because they cannot handle university curricula and expectations, he said, and although it is unlikely that the costs to taxpayers will decrease, funds could be used to benefit university students more directly.

“A lot of students struggle with college because they struggle with the system,” Levine said. “I think money has to be spent more wisely, targeted [at] programs that keep students in college. There have been rigorous experiments that find positive effects from things like individualized guidance counseling in college. It may not be possible to save money overall, but the money should be allocated in ways that boost graduation rates.”

After having attended Bunker Hill, Silva believes that the biggest setback to graduation rates begins in high school. Many high schools do not adequately prepare students for the rigorous academic demands of college, he said.

“At community college, students come in under−prepared from high school,” Silva said. “Some don’t know how to add fractions or write a paragraph.”

Furthermore, Massachusetts State public universities and colleges have suffered budget cuts in recent years, including the 9C cuts of 2009. Despite the lack of adequate funding, however, the enrollments at these institutions continue to rise.

It is easy to see that as funding decreases, the institutions’ qualities are affected, according to Silva.

“The quality decreases due to the lack of infrastructure and funds,” he said. “With the 9C budget cuts, community colleges suffer the most.”


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