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Viewpoints: The four-year degree myth

About 4 million freshmen are entering four-year American universities and colleges this fall, and statistics show that only 39 percent of them will actually graduate in four years.

In fact, over the past two decades, American universities, media ranking organizations and university advocacy groups have quietly embraced the six-year graduation rate as a standard measurement for the industry. The truth is, most college students in America aren’t really on the “four-year plan”; they are on the five- or six-year plan.

The students who do graduate in four years tend more often to have higher standardized-test scores, to be whiter and more affluent than most college students.

Four-year graduation rates are about 43 percent for whites – still not ideal – but more than 20 percent for blacks, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education.

Those students who do graduate in four years tend to matriculate into America’s elite private colleges and universities, or into a small handful of highly selective public universities.

According to figures from the College Board, 88 percent of freshmen at Harvard, Vassar and Duke are on a four-year path to a degree. At Kenyon College, Washington University in St. Louis, and Colby College, 85 percent of students attain a degree in four years. A few public universities, Michigan (72 percent) and Virginia (85 percent) among them, can be considered at or near parity with the elite privates in this regard.

Meanwhile, at most of the nation’s public universities, it’s a different story, according to the same College Board report. At the University of Georgia, only 51 percent of incoming freshmen attain a degree in four years. At Ohio State: 47 percent. University of Washington: 55 percent. Here in California, at UC Berkeley, 68 percent of incoming freshman graduate in four years. At UC San Diego: 56 percent. At UC Santa Cruz: 50 percent. At UC Riverside, it is 42 percent. Many, many state universities across the country have rates much lower.

What’s the difference between public universities and the privates? Most American research universities, whether public or private, are world-class institutions with dedicated faculty members and hard-working students. But these public universities educate and serve a far larger and more diverse population of students than do private universities.

The nation’s publics enroll 72 percent of all four-year college students in America. By contrast, the top 99 schools in the recent New York Times ranking of top colleges combine to educate only 4 percent of the nation’s 10.5 million four-year college students.

Public university students are more diverse than the elites by test scores and GPAs, by socio-economic background, and by K-12 school district. For example, my campus has more Pell Grant (i.e., low-income) students enrolled than the entire Ivy League combined. And on our campus, 60 percent of our students will be the first in their families to complete a four-year degree.

A few universities in the nation have recognized that it is high time we raised graduation rates in public universities. Schools including Arizona State University, Georgia State and the University of Texas, Austin, are now using predictive analytics and targeted advising to keep students on track to four-year graduation. My own campus and Iowa State University, among others, have developed special programs that include supplemental instruction and learning communities for freshmen. These and other public research campuses will gather in Washington, D.C., for a major announcement on Tuesday to talk about a new collaboration for student success.

How can we rectify the problem? The University Innovation Alliance members are using predictive analytics and targeted advising to keep students on track to four-year graduation. They are implementing new technologies that allow for individualized feedback to students in tough courses, and using financial incentives to provide student aid keyed to progress. They are developing summer programs that prepare students better for the rigors of college, and they are implementing student academic support programs that have proven track records.

As a group, the University Innovation Alliance institutions have committed to sharing our best practices with each other, not hoarding them for ourselves. We are modeling how best to support graduation for low-income and minority students. In coming years, the UIA group will share the most successful degree-attainment measures with other universities across the country. UC Riverside will share its experiences with student-success programs that include supplemental instruction and science learning communities for freshmen.

In a recent speech, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, noted that 80 percent of the children from the top quartile of family income earn college degrees, while only 10 percent of the children from the bottom quartile do so. As a nation, we cannot afford to let family income remain the primary determinant of educational success.

It is time to make good on the promise that a college degree is possible for people of all family backgrounds. This is not just a personal goal. If we want to continue to compete successfully on the world stage, it is one of our most important national goals. If the U.S. wants to climb back to first in the world in baccalaureate-level graduates, public universities will need to take the lead.