Joy abounds in May, and for good reason! In college auditoriums, basketball arenas, football stadiums, convention centers and other venues, jubilation fills the air as students, faculty, parents and guests gather for college debuts and graduation. As a three-time university president, this has always been my favorite moment of the academic year and the one I miss the most in retirement.
There was always something exciting about the ceremony, the colorful academic insignia and the music of the Pomp and Circumstance graduation march, even though it was played off key, and even though the commencement speakers ran regularly on the time limit that was underlined when the invitation was extended. Even so, as a parent, I still get goosebumps when I remember attending our son’s college and law school graduation over two decades ago.
When bachelor’s degrees are awarded this year, around 25% of graduates will have completed their studies in four years, while more than 60% will have attended several universities and taken six years or more to graduate. In the international context, although the United States has one of the highest enrollment rates of students attending an institution of higher education, as many as one in three students does not reach their second year.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019, some 63% of students had earned a bachelor’s degree from the same institution where they started in 2013. The 6-year graduation rate was 62% from public institutions, 68% in private non-profit institutions. institutions and 26% in private for-profit institutions. These statistics have real life implications that will reverberate throughout the lives of students. Every year, thousands of students leave college burdened with monumental debt and a haunting sense of failure. It can take years to recover from either or both. Those who can least afford these burdens are most affected.
Of course, graduation statistics vary according to the type of institution and the profile of the students served. Colleges and universities serving large numbers of first-generation, Pell-eligible students have significantly lower graduation rates than institutions serving students from high-income quadrants. This gap is unacceptable, but it persists stubbornly. The reasons are for another column. Suffice it to say here that all types of colleges and universities can and must do a better job for graduate students they deem eligible, regardless of their socio-economic background. In my opinion, not doing so is a breach of our responsibilities!
Just as administrators are responsible for the financial health of the institution on whose board they sit, I submit that they are also responsible for the academic success of students. Here are 10 key questions trustees need to demand clear answers, not excuses or explanations:
1. What happened to students who enrolled at the institution four years ago but did not graduate this year?
2. Why do students stop (temporarily withdraw) or drop out?
3. What strategies does the institution have in place to improve students’ chances of academic success?
4. Disaggregated, what are the institution’s graduation rates by gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, discipline, geography, and other factors?
5. What incentives, if any, does the institution have in place to increase academic achievement and student graduation?
6. In what ways are faculty and administrators held accountable for student academic success?
7. To what extent do students use academic and administrative support services designed to facilitate their academic success?
8. What efforts or strategies are being used to improve student achievement?
9. What are the most appropriate key performance indicators that the board should use to monitor student academic success while refraining from micromanagement?
10. When students stop or drop out before graduating, is it easy or difficult for them to re-enroll?
Whether these are the right questions boards should be asking about student academic success is undoubtedly a matter of debate. What is do not debatable is the fact that trustees are responsible for all aspects of an institution’s effectiveness. No matter how much money the president raises, the research prowess of the faculty, or the number of championships won by sports teams, the most important measure of an institution’s success is how well its students do on academically and after graduation.
When the jubilation is over and the debris of the party is cleaned up, let’s remember this key truth: student access is only part of what makes student success. Regardless of the myriad definitions of success, there is no denying that student access without success is hollow. We can and must do better for those who will shape our world for generations to come.
Dr. Charlie Nelms is Chancellor Emeritus of North Carolina Central University.