Report: Completion rates woefully low at public colleges

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Indiana and most other states are enrolling large numbers of students in college who never graduate, presenting a huge hurdle in nationwide efforts to raise the education level of the work force, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report uses data from 33 states compiled by Complete College America, a not-for-profit based in Washington, D.C., headed by Indiana’s former commissioner of higher education, Stan Jones. The study marks the first broad accounting of the success of part-time and transfer students, because federal data does not track them.

Of every 100 Hoosiers who enter two-year or four-year public colleges in Indiana, only 39 graduate, even when given four years to complete a two-year degree and eight years to complete a four-year degree.

The struggles are especially acute among students who attend school part-time or if they are black or from low-income families.

Part-timers represent 30 of every 100 college students in Indiana, but 90 percent of them fail to graduate, even when given twice the expected time to do so, the report says. About half of full-time students graduate in the same time frame.

“Increasingly in this country and in our state, the level of education is dividing between the haves and the have nots,” said Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s commissioner of higher education. “You have to be concerned about this.”

More states report graduation rates for students given three years to complete a two-year degree and six years to complete a four-year degree, and those numbers are even starker. In Indiana, only 33 percent of students graduate in that time frame, compared with 38 percent nationwide, Lubbers said.

Among African-Americans attending Indiana colleges full-time, only 6 percent—or one out of 17 students—completes a two-year degree in three years. Among all Hoosier students, nearly 20 percent graduate within three years.

The numbers are better among black students seeking four-year bachelor’s degrees and attending full-time. Thirty-five percent, or one in three, graduate in six years. But among all students, 56 percent graduate within six years.

Among low-income students in Indiana—those who received a federal Pell grant—only one in 11 earn a two-year degree in three years. Only four of 10 earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Factors that often hamper minority and low-income students include poorer academic preparation at the high school level, the need to work while also attending school or lack of guidance from family members, who never went to college themselves.

“We have a lot of first-generation families [in college] because we have an economy where a college degree was not needed for a middle-class life,” Lubbers said. “As we transition to a place where education is more important, you’re going to have a lot of students who will be the first generation because their parents didn’t have to have a college degree.”

Complete College America said its data on part-timers is particularly needed because the federal government requires colleges and universities to report completion rates only for its first-time, full-time students. But four of 10 college students today do not fit that description, according to Complete College America.

“All students now count and are being counted,” Complete College America wrote in its report on the new data. “We now have a much more complete picture of where we stand and what needs to be done so that all students have a fair shot at success.”

Complete College America, formed in 2009, is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education.

Lumina and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education have for years been highlighting Indiana’s need to boost its college completion rates. In response, the  Legislature has in recent years started funding Indiana’s public colleges in part based on their success at graduating students.


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