America’s public universities have announced that they plan to vastly increase the number of college graduates in the next decade. They’ve “pledged to graduate additional 4 million students” by 2025.

Well, sort of. This isn’t exactly a pledge in the normal way observers might think about it. According to an article by Eric Kelderman in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Nearly 500 of the nation’s public four-year colleges have committed to increasing the number of baccalaureate-degree holders by 3.8 million by 2025. The public colleges’ pledge was announced on Tuesday in a conference call with college presidents and officials at two organizations that represent the colleges: the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

In signing on to the effort, called “Project Degree Completion,” the institutions are promising to do their part to help 60 percent of adults earn a college degree by 2025.

“Do their part,” however, indicates that this commitment isn’t that serious. The actual things public colleges have committed to doing as a part of this effort are pretty vague.


The pledge also contains a clause about how state legislatures should devote more money to colleges, and the federal government should maintain its current level of support. According to Kelderman,

Strategies include reaching out to former students who took courses at the colleges but did not complete their degrees, collaborating more closely with elementary and secondary schools and community colleges, limiting the number of credits needed for certain majors, and providing more-intensive academic advising.

None of these strategies, however, addresses the core reason for America’s relatively low college graduation rate. About 58 percent of first-time, full-time college students earn bachelor’s degrees in 6 within years of starting college (the graduation rate for part-time students is likely even worse).

About 62.7 percent of first-time, full-time students in 1996 earned degrees within six years. In fact, the college graduation rate has been declining for about 30 years. Why is this? It’s hard to know for sure but it’s likely higher graduation rates in earlier times had little to do with “collaborating closely with elementary and secondary schools” or “reaching out to former students who took courses at the colleges but did not complete their degrees.”

In fact, the number one reason students drop out of college is “financial reasons”; it costs too much.

It’s state state support here that’s really most important. Due largely to declining support from state legislatures, college tuition and fees have increased 1,120 percent since 1978. If we really want to improve college graduation, in fact, we can probably forget about “collaborating closely” and other soft strategies. The only thing that really matters here is cost.

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