[Homestead] Colleges that go to extra lengths to make sure students graduate

tvoivozhd tvoivozd at infionline.net
Tue Feb 1 20:38:48 EST 2005


     	

*washingtonpost.com* <http://www.washingtonpost.com/>
*How to Pick a College That Cares if You Graduate*

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; 10:10 AM

That appears to be snow falling outside my kitchen window, but I know 
spring will soon be here, and another 2 million high school juniors, 
with their fretful parents, will be out looking for the right college.

They will be thinking: "Can I get in?" But they should be asking: "Can I 
graduate?" I have found a new online tool with an answer to that 
question, which is not asked often enough to solve a stubborn failing of 
the U.S. educational system.

It is encouraging that American teenagers are so convinced of the worth 
of a few more years of learning that two-thirds of them go off to some 
kind of college right after they get their high school diplomas. College 
may not be for everyone, but it is hard to decide the issue 
intelligently without giving it a try, and it is good that most young 
people take that risk.

If only those same college applicants and their parents did not worry so 
much about being admitted to a college whose name will impress their 
neighbors and instead thought about how they were going to learn 
something useful and get a degree. Only about half of Americans starting 
college acquire a degree within six years, and for students who start in 
four-year schools like the ones in the Education Trust data base, the 
graduation rate goes up to only about 60 percent.

To dramatize the problem, the Education Trust, a non-profit organization 
in Washington that works to improve education for minority and 
low-income students, has produced an interactive Web tool called College 
Results Online <http://collegeresults.org> and two reports on college 
graduation rates that I think should be part of every family's college 
research. They are on the group's Web site <http://edtrust.org>. I also 
got some tips from Education Trust policy research director Kevin Carey 
on good questions to ask during college tours.

But first, a warning about the standard praise of good graduation rates, 
and the standard excuse for bad ones:

Very selective colleges like Amherst, where, College Results Online 
reveals, 96.8 percent of students who arrived in 1997 had graduated by 
2003, or Princeton or Brown or Harvard, whose six-year graduation rates 
were 96.5 percent, 95.7 percent and 97.8 percent respectively, have a 
right to be proud of their success. And the many second-tier state 
universities that didn't have even half of their 1997 freshmen 
graduating in six years should do better.

But a lot of it is not the colleges' fault. The mostly middle-class 
academic stars who get into Amherst have all the motivation, family 
support and academic skills they need to get a degree, and most of them 
do it in four years, not six. The less affluent and less self-confident 
students who go to Cal State Los Angeles or Texas State San Marcos often 
have families to support, full-time jobs and other distractions that 
make it less likely they will ever walk across a university stage in cap 
and gown.

Carey, in the first of his two reports, "One Step From the Finish Line: 
Higher College Graduation Rates Are Within Our Reach," acknowledges that 
you can explain "part of the variation in institutional graduation rates 
by analyzing students' economic status -- institutions with many 
low-income students have lower graduation rates than those with few."

"There's a seductive logic to this," he said, "one that implicitly 
excuses whatever graduation-rate outcomes occur at the higher-poverty or 
less selective institutions. It's easy to become locked into a very 
deterministic, input-output model of higher education success. But in 
the end this approach is as unhelpful as a simple ranking from top to 
bottom."

Why is that? Well, the reason brings us to the whole purpose of this new 
Web tool. Colleges can actually improve their graduation rates if they 
try, Carey said. "Because even when we used the results from regression 
analysis to help us hold all of these crucial factors constant -- by 
comparing institutions only to quite similar institutions on measures 
like student preparation, size, selectivity, percent low-income 
students, and institutional support -- /some institutions consistently 
outperform their peers/."

His second report, "Choosing to Improve: Voices From Colleges and 
Universities With Better Graduation Rates," shows what some colleges 
have done to make their graduation rates better. I was surprised at the 
examples, some being universities I only read about on the sports pages, 
like Florida State and Notre Dame, and some being places I never read 
about at all, like the University of Northern Iowa or Alcorn State in 
Mississippi.

I was just ignorant, as usual. Florida State turns out to be one of the 
few big universities whose minority students graduate at nearly the same 
rate as its white students. One important reason is the school's 
full-time student advisers, who do not just sit in their offices waiting 
for problems to walk in but follow a policy of contacting every student 
at least three times a semester by e-mail, phone or in person.

At Notre Dame, when it was noticed that significant numbers of students, 
particularly minorities, were flunking or dropping out of its freshman 
chemistry course, science professors set up an alternative class for 
low-performing students that covered the same material, but included 
mandatory study group sessions. That raised the success rate by 50 percent.

University of Northern Iowa administrators heard the usual student 
complaints about not being able to graduate in time because required 
courses were full. College professors I talk to often blame this on lack 
of funds from the state legislature, but officials at Northern Iowa 
actually decided to do something about it. They analyzed the course 
requirements in each of their degree programs and added extra sections 
or took other measures to relieve the log jams.

When Alcorn State realized only half of its freshmen made it to their 
sophomore year, it created a College of Excellence that lowered class 
sizes and increased the number of advisers for both freshman and 
sophomores. This eventually cut the first year drop-out rate in half, 
and in time raised the graduation rate.

At the Education Trust Web site, click on College Results Online and you 
can enter the name of any of 1,400 undergraduate institutions in the 
data base to see how its graduation rate compares to similar schools. Or 
you can look at certain groups of schools. Or you can try my favorite 
option for the early stages of a college search: type in what kind of 
college you want, in terms of size, median SAT, public or private and 
other factors, and the Web tool gives you a list, ranked by graduation 
rate.

The Web site explains in more detail than I have space for exactly how 
the researchers chose the groups of peer colleges, which is good because 
some schools are going to complain about being misfiled. The University 
of Maryland, with a graduation rate of 70.7 percent, is only 14th in its 
peer group of 16, far below number one University of California at 
Berkeley, 85.4 percent and number two University of Michigan, 85.1 
percent. And George Washington University, 75.1 percent, is only 12th 
out of 16 in a list topped by Notre Dame, 94.6 percent, and University 
of Virginia, 92 percent.

George Cathcart, spokesman for Maryland, said the university is working 
hard to improve its graduation rate, which has reached 72.9 percent 
since the 2003 data on the Web site. He said since 1998, the rate for 
African Americans has gone from 49.4 to 56.8 percent and for Hispanics 
from 50 to 67.5 percent. Tracy Schario, spokeswoman for George 
Washington, said the university's rate has reached 78.7 percent, and 
that its peer list is different than the one used by the Education Trust.

James Madison University in Virginia, on the other hand, looked very 
good in comparison with a six-year graduation rate of 79.9 percent. It 
is number one on a list of 16, beating number two UC Santa Barbara, 73.5 
percent, and number three University of New Hampshire, 72.6 percent.

I used the equipment to create what I call the "Broke Parent with 
Average Student" list. It has only public universities whose median 
freshman SAT scores are between 1000 and 1100. At number one, fittingly 
enough, was my grandfather's alma mater, The Citadel military academy in 
Charleston, S.C., with a 71.9 percent graduation rate. The next four 
schools were, like the Citadel, relatively small and often focused on 
particular subjects, such at the Maine Maritime Academy, 69.5 percent, 
the Millersville University of Pennsylvania, 65.9 percent, Penn 
State-Erie, 65.7 percent, and the Massachusetts College of Art, 65.3 
percent. But also high on the list, at number six, was the University of 
Northern Iowa, the same school that Carey praised for fixing its course 
gridlock. It is a state school with many departments, nearly 11,000 
students and a graduation rate of 65.1 percent.

So, besides using the Web tool, how can a family tell which colleges 
care most if their students graduate? Here are four tips I got from 
Carey and a close reading of his report:

1. Plug in the words "National Survey of Student Engagement" or "NSSE" 
into a college's Web site search engine and see if the school 
participates in this useful Indiana University-based study of student 
learning, and what its results look like.

2. When visiting a college, ask some NSSE-like questions based on 
research on student engagement and learning. Examples: How much of a 
chance is there for undergraduates to do research? Do professors 
generally assign many short papers (good) or one big long one (not so 
good)? How big are classes and are they taught just by professors (good) 
or by graduate students with indecipherable accents(you get the idea).

3. Ask your tour guide how often he speaks to professors out of class. 
This is in many respects a key indicator of how hard the school is 
trying to engage students in the excitement of academic life, rather 
than just make sure they do their assignments.

4. Ask your tour guide how often she and her friends were contacted by 
their campus advisers in the last semester. If the college is using the 
Florida State system of at least three contacts, that is good. If it is 
less, or none, you can be assured other schools on the Education Trust 
list are doing a better job.

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive
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