10/24/2012 04:04 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Access and Success: Twin Priorities for American Postsecondary Education

The goal of promoting access to education in America has a long history. Almost from the beginning, American schools were viewed as instruments for promoting the growth of democracy and equality under the Jeffersonian theory that talent is distributed throughout the population, and can be identified and nurtured. However, even with the passage of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 and the efforts of many, widespread access was for a long time an unfulfilled ideal. With the beginning of the 20th century, 244 years after the founding of Harvard, colleges and universities still served primarily an elite population with only 4 percent of the 17- to 21-year-old age group attending institutions. It was not until the GI Bill of 1944 that higher education was democratized as it dramatically reduced financial barriers while providing $500 per year for tuition, books, and fees, plus a $90 per month living allowance. By 1947, there were millions of veterans in postsecondary institutions making up 49 percent of the total. In the 64 years since then, we have witnessed an exponential growth in the number and nature of institutions and today, while a surprising number of high school graduates do not go on for further education, opportunities abound.

For decades, the measuring stick of success for postsecondary administrators was the enrollment count. When college students dropped out, this was considered to be a potential personal tragedy, but there always were, at least from a statistical standpoint, many available to fill that gap. Indeed, some interpreted high success rates for a college or university simply a sign of low institutional standards. At many institutions, stories exist to this day of deans addressing new students and saying, almost with pride: "Look at the person on your left. Now look at the person on your right. Two of you will be gone in a year!" While the stories most likely are apocryphal, the statistics on retention and degree completion are not, and often reveal a grim reality for students. The most readily available data are for first-time, full-time freshman and, with this group, graduation rates are alarmingly low and have not changed significantly in many years. One million first-time, full-time students begin their higher education careers every year; none planning to fail. Yet fewer than 40 percent will receive a diploma in four years, fewer than 60 percent in six years from the institution where they started. Before going further, I feel the need to point out the data on degree completions is terribly flawed because of the complexity of tracking individuals.

But even with its flaws, the data still tells a story. First, it suggests that there is much work to be done on the degree completion front at colleges and universities. Under any circumstances, too many students are not achieving their goals. But the data does not mean that 60 percent are dropping out. Indeed, large numbers of students transfer to other institutions -- often as their plan from the start -- and graduate in four to six years (though no institution "gets statistical credit" for these successes). Furthermore, others, including many (perhaps most) adults study part-time so as to meet family and work responsibilities, and are exemplary in making steady progress toward a degree by chipping away over multiple years. These issues point to significant flaws in our official national statistical systems and truly mislead people as to the real attrition rates. However, though I make these observations, do not see me as an apologist and excuse-maker for higher education. There is much to be done to improve student success as it takes its place along with access as a national priority.