For several decades efforts to get more Americans through college have primarily focused on access. Just getting to college was a point. But now that policymakers are starting to understand that college students drop out, a lot, it might be time to focus on college graduation rates. “Access is critical,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan back in April. “But at the end of the day, it’s about completion.”

Or maybe not.

Some worry that focusing too much on graduation rates will lead schools to cheat, to make it too easy for students to get college diplomas. As Robert Weissberg writes the American Thinker:

Credential-mania is now all the rage. This shift is a disaster in the making; imparting knowledge is commendable, but just handing out diplomas is harmful deception. A cynic might aver that the shift from knowledge to graduation rates is a tacit admission that the gap-closing quest is futile.

Some exceptions aside, granting ever more college diplomas only signifies the power of today’s universities to counterfeit genuine accomplishment. Particularly worrisome is that many of these graduates have been trained for dependency. Picture these graduates navigating a cruel world deprived of role models, mentors, counselors, sympathetic evaluators, resource centers, pre-job bridge programs, and bosses unwilling to substitute ego-enhancing identity politics for difficult work.

This is maybe a little overblown. Less than 56 percent of Americans who enter college earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Is that okay? His criticism reflects a troubling myth about the low American college gradation rate: Americans drop out of college because they’re too dumb to succeed at college.

No doubt this is true occasionally but people mostly leave college because of financial pressures or because the schools they attend really just don’t function that effectively.

Improving the college graduation rate isn’t about making college easier; it’s about making colleges work better.

There actually is something wrong with low college graduation rates, even if merely addressing the graduation rate (as Weissberg points out) wouldn’t necessarily ensure that students were really learning much. Focusing on graduation rates isn’t really about bringing the average graduation rate up; it’s about improving the quality of American colleges so that serves all students. A higher graduation rate is merely a byproduct, a very welcome byproduct.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

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