When “Pomp and circumstance” passes you by

It’s almost graduation season. But many college students are facing the reality that another May will come and go without them wearing a cap and gown. A new report explains why college completion rates have declined over the past three decades.

The report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, by John Bound, Michael F. Lovenheim, and Sarah Turner, examined graduates from 1972 and 1992. They found that “over the past three decades, the share of BA degree recipients that graduate within four years has decreased and, more generally, the length of time it takes college students to attain degrees has increased.”

Pessimists among us would bemoan that today’s students are lazy, can’t finish what they start, or are just not prepared. None of that is the reason for the decline, say the authors. Examining the data showed that the decline was markedly sharper in students who attended less-selective public colleges, in those who started out at community colleges, and in low-income students.

“Strikingly, we find no evidence that changing student preparedness for college or student demographic characteristics can explain any of the time to degree increases. …In contrast, we find evidence that decreases in institutional resources at public colleges and universities [such as faculty-to-student ratio and public funding available] are important explaining changes in time to degree,” the authors say.

With education beyond high school becoming more and more necessary, this Center report does important work in cutting through some of the automatic assumptions in debates about college and career readiness.

What do you think would improve the time-to-degree rates among these groups? –Rebecca St. Andrie

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