A Few Interesting Stats on College Completion

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Plans thwarted?

Community colleges don’t trumpet this, but according to a new National Center for Education Statistics (US) report, not many of their students complete the degrees they set out to complete. Only 31% of those degree- or certificate-seeking students at two-year degree-granting institutions do complete their credential “within 150% of the normal time required to do so.” The percentage is lowest at public institutions, with just 20% of those students completing their degrees.

Important caveats: these numbers don’t count those who transfer out to another school before graduating; and also, in this study, full-time, first-time students only are counted.

Thus it wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that less than a third of community college students who declare a goal of X degree or certificate actually finish . . . but I think we can say many students’ plans do change, and certainly though some transfer out elsewhere, not everyone does.

Four-year schools’ completion rates, by contrast, are significantly higher at 59% (over 6 years); and as one might expect, the more selective the admissions, the higher the completion rate. In fact, institutions that accept fewer than 25% of applicants see 88% of their students complete Bachelor’s degrees, while institutions with open admissions policies see 31% of theirs graduate (again, transfers out aren’t counted).

I think these numbers indicate that, for new college students, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” often do go awry – and the selective admissions stats hint that being college-ready has serious consequences for the prospect of college graduation.

National Center for Education Statistics website: “The Condition of Education – Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students”:

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High Standards in Education? Heck Yes!

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You must raise it before it’s worth jumping over

You must raise it before it’s worth jumping over

What happens in K-12 doesn’t stay in K-12, and speaking particularly of low academic standards, that’s an enormous problem.

The blog “The Quick and the Ed” recently published a piece titled “High Standards: An Essential Tool in Equity for Education.” The author, Mr. Peter Cookson Jr., discusses public schools in particular, and his point is distilled in the title.

I agree with the article that academic standards in schools should be raised – but my sights are on what happens after K-12, as my experience lies in working within community colleges. There, I’ve observed that low standards in lower grades absolutely creep up to the college level. The “collective mediocrity” Mr. Cookson mentions stays with many students, unfortunately, as they move on to post-secondary ed.

Here’s how low standards in K-12 transfer up to the college level:

  1. Low standards transfer in the students’ attitude toward learning and toward the classroom (Mr. Cookson’s recollection of visiting a school in the South Bronx portrays students, despite having an apparently enthusiastic and dedicated teacher, who simply rudely* ignored the lessons). (*Speaking as a teacher, yes, I believe in-class texting and inattentiveness are rude and disrespectful. I think a classroom should be a place of attentiveness and respect for the classroom environment, the teacher, and the other students. In fact, I don’t think much learning occurs otherwise.)
  2. Low standards transfer in the students’ skill levels. (As I highlighted in a recent post, the majority of US high school students are unprepared for college-level work.)
  3. Related to the above: low standards transfer in that community colleges are forced to deal with the skills deficit by investing significant resources in remedial education (covering material at a high school, middle school, and grade school level).

Furthermore, when a community college purports to educate mostly underprepared students accustomed to low academic standards, it will, inevitably, have frustrated students, faculty, and support staff. That’s not to say many students and education professionals aren’t hard-working and dedicated to achievement; that’s not to say community colleges don’t celebrate some successes. But it is to say the students come in the door with significant setbacks on an academic level alone – starting “in the red,” as it were. And it is to say that it takes a strong character to overcome those setbacks and persevere to attain a degree of any kind. Many students drop out along the way (one study cited students’ overconfidence as a large factor – it seems they believe they are college-ready, even while their skills may be lacking).

If students believe they’re college-ready, perhaps it’s because no one has had the heart to tell them otherwise. As the article notes, “Myths persist in some quarters that high standards can hurt struggling students because they reveal their lack of preparation and low level of achievement which, in turn, can cause under-performing students to become discouraged and drop out.” [Emphases mine]


Okay, let’s consider that persistent myth. Let’s say we don’t want to hurt students’ feelings by being honest about their “lack of preparation and low level of achievement.” For instance, let’s consider their lack of writing abilities (I am thinking of the many college students I’ve taught who’ve struggled to write a complete sentence). Those students will not learn if they aren’t challenged to do better, no? So if they do end up in college, they will become rudely awakened in short order. Sure, at that point they may step it up and work hard to overcome their deficiencies; but it’s also quite likely they “become discouraged and drop out” – this time, out of college. And if they never go to college at all, they still have weak literacy and numeracy levels, and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision those negative consequences. So I would argue that so-called “social promotion” and the intentional propagation of low standards is actually cruel to students; it’s certainly flat-out dishonest; and, of course, it’s harmful to all of us, education having a ripple effect on society.

Low standards create big messes.

But now for the good news: the hopeful message that students themselves, independent of policy makers, politicians, and even teachers, can realize . . .

First, this very topic of high standards is the topic that compelled me to start this blog a year and a half ago. I have witnessed, as someone who’s taught college English and been involved in higher ed for over 10 years, the fact that our high school graduates are, in many cases, severely undereducated. What can they do? One thing they can do is work to prepare themselves for college.   

If that seems a tad overwhelming, remember libraries, the many superb resources from universities, and even whole college-level courses that are available free of charge on the internet. With these tools at our disposal, we independent learners have a great deal of power and potential.

If you’re a student, maybe your school doesn’t encourage excellence, and that’s unfortunate; but you can fight the tide of mediocrity and low standards. You are free to challenge yourself above and beyond any classroom; and quite frankly, in many cases, you need to.

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Road to College Success Paved with More than Academics

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Follow rules & rule your own learning

It’s not just academic readiness that prepares a student for college.

As a recent study argues, college students also must possess certain “non-academic skills, behaviors and attitudes” to meet with success.

The study, authored by Melinda Mechur Karp and Rachel Hare Bork, published at the Community College Research Center’s website, and noted (and linked to) in Inside Higher Ed, is directed at community college faculty and administrators. But as a new or returning college student, you may be interested to read it, and you can become cognizant of these “unspoken rules” – they include

-using your resources (such as the library or tutoring services)

-knowing how to manage your time and workflow

-knowing how to take good notes

-knowing when to ask for help

-making college a priority

I’ve long noticed that a number of my own community college students would have met with greater success had they entered my classroom with stronger study skills. I looked out, for instance, and saw them neglecting to take notes or even failing to have a notebook with them; I noticed some would skip class and fail to turn in the “little” assignments that were so critical in skill-building up to the large lessons. Unsurprisingly to me but not, perhaps, to them, these particular students generally washed out of class (that is, they ended up withdrawing or failing, or simply disappeared).

I strongly believe a “College 101” success course would benefit many of them, and I highly recommend such a course to all (student success courses are mentioned in the study, as well). As a DIY college prepster, though, you can read up on topics such as college-level note-taking and studying; a few articles on this site can get you started:

What Really Makes a Successful Student?
Libraries & Librarians: Academic Lifelines
Your Academic Well-Being May Hinge on This
Are You Taking Notes on This?

*The study discussed here is linked from “Clear Expectations on Readiness,” Inside Higher Ed, 9/18/12.

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