Unintended Consequences in the Race to Improve College Completion Rates


As happens too often in higher education these days, the recent push to increase college completion rates shows how laudable goals can become problematic when pursued in narrow, rigid ways.  Who wouldn’t want to increase the numbers of college graduates?  The goal is certainly a no-brainer.

However, a report to be released next month by the National Student Research Clearinghouse Center showing unchanged college completion rates over the last year could encourage a policy push in the wrong direction.

As the report shows, some groups—working students, parents, and other students who (for any number of legitimate reasons) can only attend college part-time– have a harder time graduating in the “magical” 6 years defined as “successful completion.”  That, too, is a no-brainer.

The 6-year standard for “successful college completion” will not work for all students, especially those with family and work obligations that have increased with the skyrocketing costs of tuition.  Policy initiatives to “incentivize” 6-year graduation could just mean even more obstacles to graduation—and less success—for some students if they are pushed into taking more courses than they can handle successfully.

Such unintended consequences can be avoided if we keep focused on the real goal of providing more students with high-quality higher education and if we temper our urges for simplistic, one-dimensional measures of our progress toward that goal.