Making the case for mandatory college graduation

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After the housing industry, American’s colleges and universities are collectively the country’s second largest business. A closer look behind higher education’s ivy-covered walls reveals how colleges are kept afloat by practices as mercenary as housing’s sub-prime lending practices that nearly destroyed the US economy in 2008.

Like virtually all profit making organizations, colleges rely upon selective, sometimes deceptive marketing methods to bolster the value and prestige of degrees earned by students who complete their studies in 4 years. The operative word is “complete” because from the student’s point of view completion, not acceptance is what should drive the decision to select a college.

Each year US News and World Report, which calls itself the “nation’s leading news service provider of information that improves the quality of life of its readers” publishes a number of ratings that purports to rank the best American colleges.

The popularity of the online magazine’s rankings is undisputed. The first day its 2014 report was released brought a whopping 2.6 million unique visitors to its website and 18.9 million page views in a single day. Families wrestling with finding a college that best meets their child’s academic needs and aspirations should be aware this report may not be as impartial as it appears.

For example, colleges routinely use acceptance rates to drive up their ranking and impress upon the public the value of a degree earned from its institution. The clear message to prospective families is, many apply, but only accept a select few are accepted. According to the US News and World Report Stanford is America’s most selective college. For every 100 students who apply only 5.7 are offered acceptance, statistically speaking. Harvard comes in a close second at 5.8, Columbia and Yale are tied at 6.9 each and Princeton rounds out the top five with a 7.4 acceptance rate.

But, what is ROI (return on investment) for low acceptance rates? This kind of ranking is a ruthless way to distract attention away from its dismal back end statistics. Colleges know the same parents seeking to bask in the glow of their child gaining admission to a highly selective, cream of the crop school, would be put off by its low graduation rates. In my opinion the most impressive ranking is a list of colleges with highest 4 year graduation rate. This ranking is conspicuously absent from the report’s main pages; it is only found by a key words web search.

Apparently, there is no evidence exclusive acceptance has any value other than bragging rights that your kid got in a “good” school. Need proof there is no correlation between selective acceptance and actually earning a degree? Only one college (Columbia) ranked the third most selective university is the only school in the top 25 ranking of schools with the highest 4 year graduation rates. Acceptance is a necessary first step, but the bottom line is no school grants degrees just for gaining admittance.

If you are planning to send your child to a state college you may think these practices do affect your family? You would be mistaken. The disparity between college acceptance and graduation rates exposes one of higher education’s shadiest practices. To increase revenue all colleges artificially brandish their academic standing by routinely promoting a useless, misleading measure of success: a low, exclusive acceptance rate instead of the truest indicator value of its degrees, the 4 year graduation rate.

This practice is in part responsible for the ever increasing cost of a college education, and at the same time shields schools from any meaningful accountability.

But, what if the parents and students who bear the burden of high tuition and crushing debt demanded that colleges be responsible for ensuring the students it accepts were required to graduate from their school in four years. Basically, what I purpose is making college acceptance linked to mandatory graduation.

This idea is not as far-fetched and radical as it may first sound. Consider how military service functions as a viable vocational path for young men and women. In a process that mirrors colleges and universities, the army recruits and offers acceptance to people it believes can be trained and educated to become successful soldiers.

Like college signing up to join the armed forces is optional, but completing the terms of service is not. That, I believe is where the lack of higher education’s institutional accountability serves its needs at the expense of thousands of students who are accepted, take out loans, attend classes for one or two semesters but for variety of reasons fail to make it to the finish line.

Next week: Why higher education accountability matters to every member of our society.

Jayne Matthews Hopson writes each week about educational matters because “only the educated are free.”