College Graduation Doesn’t Move Much

College graduation rates are too low. This idea is extremely important in all discussions of higher education policy. It’s also true. Only about 57 percent of college students graduate within six years of starting college. What’s more, while about 59 percent of white students finish in six years, only 51 percent of Hispanics, and 42 percent of black students, graduate in the same time.

But what if graduation rates were always low? That’s the contention underlying the latest piece by George Leef at the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. According to Leef:

A new paper, “The Attrition Tradition in American Higher Education” by University of Kentucky professor John Thelin, takes issue with that. After some painstaking research into a graduation data for a sampling of colleges and universities going back about a century, Thelin concludes that there never was a “golden age.” Even prestigious schools used to have surprisingly high attrition rates.

To find out how much of a dropout problem there used to be, Thelin had to carefully go through each year’s class rosters at schools like Brown, Harvard, Amherst, and William and Mary. Based on that work, he found that in the early 1900s, graduation percentages were often in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

Thelin is right that there was no golden age when nearly all those who went to college earned their degrees. High dropout rates weren’t seen as a national problem in the old days and it’s hard to see why they are today.

While it’s sort of interesting to know that college graduation rates were historically often below 80 percent, it doesn’t really mean low graduation rates are no problem. The world has changed. Now people have to have college degrees to obtain professional jobs. The fact that large numbers of people don’t finish college in six years is a problem, no matter what historical graduation rates looked like.

Read Thelin’s paper here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer