US College Completion Rate Rises, As Ceremonies Are Postponed

    28 March 2020

    This year, many students who are graduating from universities across the United States and in many countries will not get to enjoy traditional celebrations of their success.

    A growing number of schools are cancelling or postponing their graduation ceremonies because of the worldwide spread of the coronavirus.

    But in the U.S., the cancellations do come at a time when the national graduation rate is continuing to increase.

    FILE - In this May 5, 2018, file photo, graduates at the University of Toledo commencement ceremony in Toledo, Ohio. Colleges across the U.S. have begun cancelling and curtailing spring graduation events amid fears from the coronavirus.
    FILE - In this May 5, 2018, file photo, graduates at the University of Toledo commencement ceremony in Toledo, Ohio. Colleges across the U.S. have begun cancelling and curtailing spring graduation events amid fears from the coronavirus.

    Mikyung Ryu is the director of research publications for the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. She told VOA that for a long time, the national rate of completion for two and four-year college study programs stayed a little over 50 percent.

    The U.S. Department of Education reports the nation's graduation rate. But, Ryu said it has not been getting the full picture of who actually was entering higher education. She noted that the agency was not including in its numbers students who left college to study at different schools. Also, many older students and ones working full-time jobs have started attending colleges and universities in recent years. These people are often unable to complete their programs in the usual two or four years.

    "The traditional measure of college completion outcomes does not work well anymore. So it has to be adjusted to better address the increasingly complex student profile," said Ryu.

    So in 2009, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center asked over 3,600 colleges and universities in 45 states for more complete student data. For students in two-year programs, the group looked at how many students graduated within three years. For four-year programs, it looked at the six-year graduation rate. The center also included information on students who moved from one school to another to continue their education.

    Last December, the center released a comparison between the six-year graduation rate for all students who started in the fall of 2009 to those who started in the fall of 2013. Researchers found the overall graduation rate had increased to 60 percent.

    Ryu said the results represent a nationwide success story because gains were found in 43 out of 45 states.

    Yet experts like Iris Palmer say the national graduation rate does not tell the whole story. She is a top advisor for higher education and the workforce at New America, a public policy research group.

    She noted that, because of the rising cost of higher education in the U.S., many schools are under pressure to show their success in both completion and job placement. In addition, some colleges and universities might admit only the highest performing candidates in order to increase their completion rates.

    "If you become more selective, you're more likely to have a higher graduation rate," Palmer said. "So the worry is that if you focus too much on the graduation rate, you disadvantage low-income and historically discriminated against populations, because it is actually harder to get them to graduate."

    Still, Palmer notes schools and policymakers have made an effort to improve student success. This includes measures to improve guidance for students through their programs, as well as other support services.

    Josh Wyner agrees that overall this seems to be a sign that American higher education is moving in the right direction. He is the executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. But he notes 60 percent is still low and it is not clear what this number means for the future.

    There is still more to be done that can increase the rate, Wyner argued. This includes exploring new teaching methods, and increasing efforts to make all students, especially non-traditional ones, feel like they belong at colleges and universities. It also means including different kinds of study programs in this count.

    "The credentials that matter are the ones that enable somebody to get a good job ... regardless of whether that's technical training or traditional liberal arts," Wyner said.

    I'm Pete Musto.

    Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


    Words in This Story

    graduating –adj. to receive a degree proving that a student has met all educational requirements to receive the honor

    adjusted –adj. to be changed to deal with a problem or issue in a better way

    address –v. to deal with

    profile –n. a description that provides information about someone

    selective –adj. choosing only the most sought-after examples

    focus –v. to place one's attention or efforts on something

    disadvantage –v. to cause something to be more difficult for certain people

    income –n. pay, money provided by an employer or from business dealings

    credential –n. a document that shows a person is qualified to do something

    liberal arts – n. a traditional course of education in the Western world that includes sciences related to the natural world, such as physics, biology and math, the social sciences and the arts