College Guide


December 19, 2011 6:12 PM Why College Students Don’t Graduate

By Daniel Luzer

Critics often suggest the reason America’s college completion rate is low (less than 40 percent of the U.S. adult population has a college diploma) has something to do with the way high schools don’t prepare students for college.

But the problem might be simpler. Maybe it’s just the logistics of taking classes that might be the source of the dismal gradation rate numbers.

According to an article by Steve Yoder in The Fiscal Times:

Students also fall behind because classes they need aren’t available when they need them, notes a 2010 report by the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit that advises southern state educational leaders. One unavailable prerequisite course can cost a student an entire year. A frustrated parent told Wisconsin’s WISC-TV in December 2009 that her son, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, had taken enough credits but still would not be able to graduate in four years because of full classes. “He has been pleading with staff at UW-SP to get this rectified and they will not do anything other than get him finished in four and a half years,” she said.

The solution is perhaps for colleges to think a little more closely about the progress students make through college or make a 4-year plan standard and relatively simple to achieve.

How to make this happen is a matter of debate (reduce the number of credits needed, offer classes all 12 months a year, and punish students for amassing too many credits are some options proposed) but at least colleges are starting to think about the seriousness of this issue.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Dave Mazella on December 19, 2011 9:22 PM:

    Once again, a simplistic post treating a complex problem. Virtually every state school is in effect competing with community colleges and other schools for students' first 2 years. This means that the demand is often distributed across institutions that teach those basic courses, sometimes well, sometimes badly. And as I've explained numerous times on this blog, declining state contributions ultimately translate into bigger or fewer sections of those key courses. But I haven't seen any mention of the extraordinary percentage of new students requiring remediation, which in my state of TX is now around 60%. Those students need developmental sections and extra services, which of course cannot be counted toward degree. The lesson is, with today's students, if you impose a standardized expectation of graduation time, you may very well flunk more students than you graduate. Be careful of what you wish for.

  • Phalamir on December 20, 2011 7:05 PM:

    Why is the obvious solution not considered in that last paragraph, i.e. quit hiring Third Assistants to the Assistant of the Assistant Vice-President in Charge of Aimless Hiring of Assistants, and actually hire an instructor or two, thus adding more sections so that students have enough sections to realistically get the class when needed? Adminstrative hires went up 200+% over the last decade, staff hires 100+%, and instructors 17% - kill off a few EdD deadweight at the top, keep the staff stable, and hire a damn professor once and a while.

  • Prof. U on December 20, 2011 9:18 PM:

    Right on Phalamir!
    Every semester I get students begging me to add me to classes that are already full because they need the course to graduate. The last two years every course in my department was over-enrolled and when we asked if we could add a person to the department we were told there was no money in the budget. We have not had raises in three years. But every senior administrator makes six figures (only two of our 100 faculty have cracked the six figure mark). And new faculty qualify for low income housing in the county we are in because starting salary is so low.

    I agree that one of the problems is poorly prepared students (every year I get dozens of first-year students who have never written a paper more than five pages long before) but colleges and universities want to pack more students into classrooms instead of hiring more faculty. In a writing intensive class I need about six hours for grading and one-on-one conferences per student over the semester, if I add seven students I just added a week to my semester. This is one reason so many schools are adding on-line courses. They don't have to find a room they can just foist all that work on junior faculty and expect them to provide something of value to students. Faculty are stressed to the breaking point as it is.

  • BlueUU63 on December 21, 2011 8:11 AM:

    Exactly. So many of the upper division courses needed for graduation are offered every other year that it's no wonder that these classes close and students get behind. I wonder if the parents who complain understand that state schools get so much less of their operating expenses from the state than they used to, and that has a direct impact on their kids' time to graduation.

    Every time I read posts on this blog I wonder where this guy gets his information. He certainly doesn't seem to know much about how higher ed really operates.

  • Daniel on December 21, 2011 10:24 AM:

    @BlueUU63: the souring for all information is contained in the links within the article.

    @Prof. U and Phalamir: Yes, it's possible the price of administrators may be a cause of increasing class size. It's also just that increasing class size is a good way to get a lot of paying students into one class that's very cheap to administer.

    The point made by the Southern Regional Education Board was just that failure to get into a class can mean students don't graduate. The reason students have trouble getting into classes they need is, as you've all demonstrated, a matter of debate.

    @Dave Mazella: Remediation is also a cause of students dropping out, for sure. The Monthly has published several articles about remediation, both on this blog and in the print issue of the magazine. The logistics of signing up for classes also plays into remediation problems.

  • Dave Mazella on December 21, 2011 1:20 PM:

    @Daniel, yes I've seen the pieces you've aggregated on remediation. The problem is not that it doesn't work under certain circumstances, but that students working significantly below college level get overwhelmed by the process. There are alternatives, but they tend to be more expensive than remediation courses, which certainly can create the warehousing effects that cause dropouts. I think most if these programs were never intended to be used for large numbers of students, and no one is prepared to cover the cost. So what alternatives did you have in mind?

  • Daniel on December 21, 2011 2:25 PM:

    @Dave Mazella: This isn't a post about remediation, but the most effective way to address students who aren't prepared for college (however colleges define this) seems to be to provide remediation services as a component of the credit-beating courses. That's usually how vocational schools do it. That's also how good elementary and secondary schools do it.

  • Dave Mazella on December 21, 2011 8:54 PM:

    Good. Now tell me, who will pay for those services in a university system organized almost entirely around student credit hours? (unlike the k-12 system that is funded per student and with lots of money budgeted for services) Can state universities suddenly decide to opt out of their funding and accountability structures?

    And yes, this post is very much about remediation and its limits. You're discussing time to completion, correct? If you're not willing to tackle the systemic complexities of higher Ed and its problems, why are you writing this blog?

  • sacip on December 23, 2011 1:39 PM:

    Excellent article calling attention to a problem that's fixable, but maybe not in the best $$ interest of universities. Limiting access to required courses (either by limiting sections taught &/or capping them @ lower numbers) keeps tuition paying kids in school a bit longer, as noted. Of course, they can usually get into summer offerings, but, surprise, that means extra tuition payments as well!! Win-win for college coffers. I'm surprised more parents aren't on to this game and screaming in protest when their kids try to register on-line @ 12:05 a.m. and find courses already closed.