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24 January 2013

Funding Tied to Graduation

In line with a larger conversation currently going in higher education, the University System of Georgia, of which the college where I work is a part, is tying graduation rates to institutional funding. Graduation and retention in higher ed is certainly a problem when students are taking on debt without securing the credentials that will countervail those costs with the increased chances for lifetime earnings. It's like getting a mortgage from the bank but spending the loan money on rent instead of a home. Without the college degree, the money spent on tuition, fees, and materials as well as lost wages over that period amount to a loss instead of an investment. On that, I think we can all agree.

If only it were that simple.

In these kinds of conversations, we often conceptualize college as producers of graduates without considering the preparatory role of secondary education and the gatekeeping role of admissions offices. Even as college is becoming a prerequisite for middle-class employment and students are enrolling in colleges at increasing rates, in general, secondary education has not significantly changed what it is doing. In other words, more students are going to college, but not all of those students are adequately prepared for college. Compounding this, admissions offices (and arguably high school academic counselors) are not adequately directing students to the institutions for which they are optimally suited. Ideally, all students would graduate high school with the requisite skills to succeed in college, but there is incredible variation among this group. Each institution, however, cannot be all things to all students. It is far more efficient to sort students by ability, capacity, and trajectory than to de-differentiate and re-mission all institutions. Many students are better suited to technical/vocational certification than to a traditional college experience. Many students need a year or two at a community college. Some students are more likely to be successful at regional commuter institutions. Some students will do well at regional residential universities. And, a minority of students are primed for success at more selective liberal arts colleges and flagship universities. The problem is that students are usually ill-informed about the differences between these options and require assistance. A rejection letter from an institution to which one is poorly suited is best for the student.

I do think that there are two major points of concern here. First, I worry that an unintended consequence of tying graduation rates to funding will be for more-selective institutions to only admit students who are the most likely to graduate (e.g. affluent white women) in order to better ensure funding. The social consequence is that this would magnify the advantage of those who are already privileged and to exacerbate the disadvantage of those who are underprivileged (e.g. poor black men), essentially reproducing and further entrenching the social stratification that is already a problem in the U.S. Second, professors could simply lower academic standards to increase graduation rates, graduating students with inadequate qualifications. Both situations are disastrous.

So, what for solutions? None of this should be misconstrued as a passing-of-the-buck. Colleges and universities have to increase graduation and retention rates. This can only happen, though, in a more comprehensive and contextualized discussion of the issues related to higher education today. By focusing our attention on the symptom (i.e. low graduation rates), we ignore the systemic causes (e.g. college-ready students).

1 comment:

  1. I think we're already at the point of admitting mainly affluent white women. I had one class Core class here with 35 students, 3 were male.