June 5 2012
Vicki E. Alger
Fewer than half of students graduate in four years at 33 of the 50 state flagship schools. The overall four-year graduation rate is 31 percent for public colleges and 52 percent for private ones, the federal government reported this year. … “Four years and out” is a long tradition at private colleges, a value reinforced by the parents who pay the bills. Public universities, by contrast, have long tolerated the five- or six-year degree. But too often, the slow track leads nowhere. “The longer it takes people to graduate, the less likely they are to graduate — ever,” said William Bowen, former Princeton president and co-author of the book Crossing the Finish Line. …Colleges are mobilizing on the issue for several reasons. Public tuition and fees have doubled since the mid-1990s, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to an average $8,244. President Obama has set a goal for the nation to regain the world lead in college attainment by 2020. The economic downturn has pushed state lawmakers to target perceived collegiate “slackers” and the tax dollars that subsidize their education.
One barrier to timely graduation is the availability of required courses. Introductory courses fill up quickly, and some majors, such as engineering, are designed to take five or more years under the current model. Some public universities across the country are taking steps to fix this problem by offering more summer classes.
A more fundamental fix has to do with incentives. Public universities receive lump-sum appropriations from state governments just for the costs associated with enrolling students. They get additional revenue from tuition (which is often heavily subsidized), earmarked grants, private donations, and self generated income. By simply directing the lump-sum portion to students in the form of performance grants, students would be motivated to finish on time or pay their portion back. Institutions would make sure to keep costs down and offer all necessary classes, in addition to offering students sensible graduation and career counseling, or risk losing students and their education dollars.