A young lady in my neighborhood that has been out of high school for a year recently told my wife that she doesn’t know how she will be able to continue her college education, having lost a scholarship that required good grades. Taking chemistry in the same semester as another difficult course proved to be her undoing.

If my neighbor doesn’t make it back to college right away she will have plenty of company. The D-News reports that “fewer than 55 percent of first-time students at the average four-year college graduate within six years, and at many institutions, students have less than a one in three chance of earning a degree.”

My neighbor has been attending Weber State University, which the D-News reports had “a 29 percent graduation rate in 2007.” Ouch. That’s pretty deplorable. More than seven of every ten students that enter WSU will fail to earn a four-year degree within six years.

But wait. Wouldn’t that figure be skewed a bit by the significant number of young men that take two years off to serve a mission for the LDS Church? Well, let’s take a look at graduation rates at other universities around the state that would face the same issue — some of them to a greater degree. BYU: 78%. UofU at 56% and Westminster at 54% are both close to the national average. USU: 45%. SUU: 41%. (No figures for UVU.)

These figures come from a report titled Diplomas and Dropouts from the American Enterprise Institute. While there are certainly significant differences in “student motivation, finances, and ability,” the report finds that “there are vast disparities—even among schools educating similar students—at the less selective institutions that educate the bulk of America’s college students.” Even schools that perform very poorly continue to benefit from millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies with almost no consideration as to quality and performance.

The D-News cites Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William A. Sederburg as saying that Utah’s overall graduation rate may actually be lower than stated the 50.5 percent in the report “because not all four-year schools are included.” If you cut out the private institutions, Utah’s overall bachelor degree graduation rate is less than 43 percent.

The authors of the report suggest that there are many things that colleges and universities can do to improve their graduation rates without sacrificing quality or even spending more money. The worst way to improve graduation rates is to lower standards. That simply disguises the problem without solving it.

Now for a confession. I was among the vast number of WSU students that have dropped out over the years. I started college when I was still 17. I put in a year, but then took 2½ years off to earn money and then to serve a mission for my church. I then put in another year before figuring that I’d take a term off to work full time and build up my savings.

That hiatus lasted much longer than one term. Eventually I returned to school when I was married, had two children, and was working full time to support my family. That was harsh. Although I had much less disposable time, I was much more focused and was a much better student. After finishing my bachelor degree, I decided to stick it out for two more years and complete a master degree. It was very tough. But I was a straight A student; something that had never been the case during my entire previous formal education.

I do not intend to imply that I was a victim of anything. My choice to drop out of college was my own. Nobody forced me to do it. But we all tend to operate within the cultural limits of organizational behavior. The fact that WSU has such a low graduation rate says something. It says that something is out of whack.

The AEI study’s authors write that “colleges and universities have many goals and serve a wide range of populations. Most students, however, attend college to earn a degree.” By that standard, many of our colleges and universities are in bad shape — some spectacularly so. Perhaps these schools can take some lessons from lowest tier schools that have reasonable graduation rates, such as Kansas State University (58%), University of Wisconsin–Platteville (53%), and Walla Walla University (53%).

The AEI report conveniently lists the top 10 and bottom 10 schools according to graduation rate in each of six tiers. It should be noted that most of the schools on the six top 10 lists (86%) and on the six bottom 10 lists (66%) are privately owned. But there are some important differences. 58 percent of the schools on the top 10 lists are religiously affiliated, while only 17 percent of schools on the bottom 10 lists currently have religious affiliation.

Perhaps the high dropout rates at some schools illustrates the point made in this January 2007 post, where I discussed Charles Murray’s series of WSJ articles (part 1, part 2, part 3) where he makes the claim that, with a few notable exceptions, college is not the best way to credentialize workers for the modern workforce. Murray asserts that the push to graduate an increasing portion of the population from college dilutes the actual value of a university degree. (Murray followed this up with this August 2008 op-ed, where he calls for replacing the BA degree with “evidence of competence” on the apprentice-journeyman-craftsman model for all types of jobs.)

At any rate, colleges and universities should accept the fact that they are in the business of producing competent degree holding graduates. For that to happen, the people that pay money into these schools — students, parents, businesses, and taxpayers (and their representatives) — need to achieve this same vision and then require some accountability. Having information about graduation rates is a nice first step. But don’t expect improvement to happen until the people that control the cash flow into the colleges and universities tie those dollars to degree outcomes.

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