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Students Find It's Tough To Graduate In Four Years


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Only a little over half of fulltime students graduate with a bachelor's degree within six years of starting college. Educators blame the low rate on students who decide to adjust their course loads, take time off or drop out of school altogether.

And the stakes are very high. Studies show that students who fail to get a degree do no better than those who never went to college at all, and may be worse off if they accumulate student debt. As more and more schools make graduations rates public, some educators worry they may be held accountable for a statistic that's difficult to measure, and which many now argue is outdated.

If you struggled to complete higher education, call and tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, ad agencies get next fall's schedules from the television networks and wonder where the viewers went.

But first, Jeff Selingo is the editorial director for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He worked on a group of articles that ran in the Chronicle on college completion and joins us now from studios at the Chronicle here in Washington. Nice to have you with us.

JEFF SELINGO: It's good to be here.

CONAN: And that statistic I mentioned right at the top, just over half get a bachelor's within six years, that's the federal law's designation. But doesn't that seem to be a snapshot of a world that's passed us by?

SELINGO: There's no doubt about it. When - believe it or not, graduation rates at colleges have only been tracked since the mid-1990s. But it's - it was really built for a system of fulltime undergraduates, 18 to 24-year-olds, and the fact of the matter is those are now the nontraditional students. Students we used to refer to as nontraditional students are now the traditional students, the adult students, students who transfer institutions, students who go part-time. Very few of those students are counted under the current definition of the graduation rate.

CONAN: So that - what seems like an appallingly low number doesn't really even apply.

SELINGO: That's true. I mean, it applies at places like Harvard, where students come in at 18-year-old, as 18-year-olds, they go full time, and they graduate four or six years later. But at community colleges or other four-year colleges where students are more likely to transfer, we now know a third of students, for example, transfer, once they transfer, those students are never tracked again as to whether they actually graduate from another institution.

CONAN: So the statistics, I guess you write that it's a basic consumer fact for would-be students, and useful for comparing similar kinds of colleges.

SELINGO: Yes. I mean, it's still a measure, right. And so as - I think that it's a measure that consumers, that prospective students and their families should look at, especially if they're looking at a group of colleges. You know, what are my chances of graduating from this college within four or six years? And if you're looking at a list of 10 colleges, and a few colleges rank much higher than others on this measure, I think that's worthy of asking those colleges that don't.

CONAN: And it's worth asking: A student like me, what are the chances? Because there are big discrepancies if you're white or African-American or Hispanic, and how much money your parents make.

SELINGO: Oh, there's no doubt about that. I mean, the graduation rate definitely differs by demographic group. It definitely differs by how much money you have, and it differs even by major. So, you know, sometimes you might be in a hard major where students tend to drop out, as opposed to some easier majors on college campuses.

CONAN: And there are some courses, as you suggest, you know, various kinds of engineering courses that have very difficult classes that are almost designed to get students to change their major.

SELINGO: Exactly. So I think that's - in some cases, they want students to not necessarily drop out of college, but they definitely want them to reconsider their major.

CONAN: It's also important to remember that there's a big discrepancy between the kind of reporting you get from public institutions and private ones.

SELINGO: Well, that's true. I mean, private institutions actually do a much better job of graduating students. Now, publics will say, well, that's because privates get to pick their students. They're more selective. So publics, especially regional public colleges, tend to take more students. They have less ability. So those students tend to drop out more.

The other thing is the cost of college. The price of a private college is much more than a public college, which sometimes encourages students to finish up and to finish up on time because they don't want to be paying those tuition bills for five, six or seven years.

So, for example, at a public, four-year college, the average graduation rate - four-year graduation rate is 31 percent. Thirty-one percent of students graduate in four years, where at a private, four-year college, it's 53 percent.

CONAN: And we're focusing largely on the experience of staying - of trying to stay in school and what happens to people who drop out. But it is important to note that educators, as you point out in your series, are concerned that this statistic is going to be used as a kind of - as a kind of accountability, that this is going to be - funding is going to be based on whether they can get that number up.

SELINGO: And it's already being used in a lot of states. So a lot of - a couple of states tend to see among them - tie some of their state funding to their public universities, to the graduation rates of those universities. And there's - faculty members, in particular, I think, are concerned that there'll be more pressure to get students through.

First of all, the schools might - the schools might take students in that they otherwise wouldn't have taken in, but more so that the faculty members will be forced to pass students that really shouldn't be passed because the schools get money based on it.

CONAN: And so this is going to turn colleges, to a degree, into like No Child Left Behind.

SELINGO: Yes. And I think that's the concern. You know, there's also a push right now at the federal level. A couple of years ago, President Obama issued a challenge to colleges and universities to increase the proportion of students with a college credential by the year 2020 so the U.S. could once again rank number one in the world on this measure. So there's, right now, a big push to get not only more students into college, but more students through college.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today, Jeff.

SELINGO: No problem. It's great to be here.

CONAN: Jeff Selingo, editorial director for the Chronicle of Higher Education, joined us from a studio there. We want to hear your experience. If you've struggled to complete your higher education, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Chris, and Chris is on the line with us from Modesto in California.

CHRIS: Hi. Thanks for taking my call, Neal. Yeah, I was on the eight-year plan. I graduated high school in '87. I had a partially full academic scholarship to Memphis State University, left after a .78 GPA because I think I'd gone from living with my mom, doing my own thing to I had all these freedoms, and I preferred to smoke cigarettes and drink Coca-Cola and watch TV than go to class, because that was my choice.

So I knocked around a couple of years, and then I met a really good academic advisor at DeKalb Community College in Atlanta, Georgia in the early '90s. And he basically told me, you know, you're going to work, and you're going to go to school - because my family wasn't in a position to support me through school. And he kind of just laid it out, and he said you'd be in a cheaper education your first two years at a community college, and then once you have that associates degree, it's transferrable.

Then I finished my bachelor's degree, but I worked fulltime. I worked at the college radio station, WRAS, give a shout-out to Georgia State. And - but when I graduated, it was my own college debt, and I had a lot of experience in jobs that I knew I didn't want to do. And it really motivated me to - I had a great advisor at Georgia State, and I went to grad school after that and finished when I was 29.

And I've still got debt, but I have something that nobody can take away from me. It took a long time. I wish maybe it hadn't taken as long, but I had some great jobs, you know, being a college deejay, waiting tables, making desserts for restaurants. But, yeah, a very long, long trip.

CONAN: That job at the radio station, is that one of the ones you've decided you really don't want?

CHRIS: No, I loved it. Actually, I was - I've met a lot of great people and realized how severely underfunded nonprofit radio stations are, and realized if I'm going to pay off my college loans - you know, I eventually ended up in technology. But, I mean, if I didn't have to worry about money, I would go back to working at a radio station, even if it was just stacking CDs and stuff, to be quite honest. Lots of great memories from WRAS, for sure.

CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

CHRIS: Thanks again.

CONAN: And Christ mentioned the importance of an advisor. Kathleen Shea Smith is the assistant director of the Advising First Center for Exploratory Learning at Florida State University. She's done extensive research in the field of student advising and college completion, and joins us now from member station WFSU in Tallahassee. Nice to have you with us today.

KATHLEEN SHEA SMITH: It's great to be here.

CONAN: And I assume that like other public institutions, Florida State has fairly low graduation rates, if you take that four-year student and six years.

SMITH: Yes. And it's something - I mean, we're actually higher than the national average, and FSU has been devoting a lot of time and energy and resources and commitment to improving our graduation and retention rates, and we're making some significant strides. But the way that FSU has tackled this, which is the way that I believe the issue really has to be tackled, is through this mind-shift that, really, instead of blaming the student and talking about how students are not prepared or how students are not able to handle the rigors of college, but instead turning that to how can universities and colleges support the student and provide the best support so that our students who we admit, that we're responsible for their success.

And that's what we're doing at Florida State, and that's what we're doing across the country. We're really working hard on that in the academic advising field. So it was great to hear Chris so positive about his advising experiences.

CONAN: But part of that process, I assume, has to be to identify some common pitfalls.

SMITH: Yes. And there are common pitfalls, and I think what makes this issue so complex - and having now worked in academic advising for over 20 years - is that students come in with so many different issues, and that the only way to really address their issues is through a one-on-one relationship where you can understand their story and then make the correct recommendations so that they can be successful and they can achieve, because there are obstacles. There are barriers. There's difficulties.

Students come in, and they think that they want a certain major, and maybe they haven't focused or really thought about what that means in terms of academics, because we find that with - across the country, statistics show that students are coming in with maybe not as much knowledge as they need to really understand what's ahead of them.

And so it's important for academic advisors to help educate them about what the course offerings are and what the majors require, but also help them or support them if things shift and if things change, because it's such a period of change in a person's life. And so advisors are there to really - to point - to hit those points and to make suggestions so the student doesn't become derailed.

CONAN: And, well, we'll talk more about the costs after a short break, but the necessity for so many people to work to pay for college means that they don't often have time to do that academic work, and then they start falling - it gets into a cycle.

SMITH: Right. Right. And so I think it's very important, again, to have those conversations. And when a student expresses that they are working 30 hours a week, to stop the conversation and ask about that. What does that mean? Does that mean - why is that happening? And then address - maybe there are some other options and other solutions to meet those same goals.

CONAN: We're talking about graduation rates and college. Our guest is Kathleen Shea Smith, assistant director of the Advising First Center for Exploratory Learning at Florida State University. What's your experience been if you've had struggles getting through college? 800-989-8255. TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about why so relatively few graduate from college on time, what's at stake and what schools can and should do to address the problem. If you struggled to complete higher education, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest, Kathleen Shea Smith, she serves as assistant director of the Advising First Center for Exploratory Learning at Florida State University. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go next to Alicia(ph), Alicia with us from Columbus.

ALICIA: Yeah, hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

ALICIA: I just wanted to make a comment. I'm currently at OSU right now studying, and the general feeling among my peers is we are afraid to enter the job market in its current state. So many of my friends, like, intentionally, like, take breaks from school and defer their student loans because they don't want to graduate and have to repay them, knowing that they'll probably end up, you know, in the same restaurant jobs that they were before except they have to pay their student loans back.

So a lot of us just take breaks because we know that the economy is bad and, you know, the outlook isn't very good for us right now. So we're kind of just waiting out the economy and the job market, seeing if it'll bounce back.

CONAN: Are you one of those who's considering stretching out that bachelor's degree?

ALICIA: You know, I did take two quarters off about a year ago, and yeah, I mean, my attitude is basically I'm in no rush at the moment, so...

CONAN: And is graduation looming?

ALICIA: I'm sorry?

CONAN: Are you facing the prospect of imminent graduation now?

ALICIA: I've got a year left.

CONAN: OK, well, enjoy it, and make the most of it. But I wonder, Kathleen Shea Smith, if that's a common story that you hear, as well.

SMITH: I do hear that story, and I think what - you know, what I'd like to recommend is that in addition to working a job where you can bring in some income to also think about where you're studying and maybe fill some experiences during that break that will help augment your academic path because I think that what we're seeing for students and the best way to prepare them for after graduation and to be successful entering the job market is to do as many different activities that will build leadership and build skills that employers are going to - will want to be seeking.

And I think that that's something that I want to recommend to the callers and other callers out there who are thinking and struggling about the economy that, in addition, think about internships or volunteer work or ways that you can help define your focus and build your resume so that when you enter the job market that it's something where you can maybe start in an entry-level position but then build up.

And that's something that I really want to encourage, and I do encourage my students to pursue.

CONAN: We have this tweet from Jeremy LaMont(ph): Thirteen years ago, after starting college right out of high school, I dropped out three times, he writes. I've been employed at a small tech firm for 10 years. A degree might be nice but expensive, and I'm not sure it's worth it. Kathleen Shea Smith, we did cite that statistic that those - at least finding of a study that those who attend college but do not graduate are no better off than those who did not attend college at all, and of course if they've accumulated debt, they're worse off.

SMITH: Right, they are worse off, and actually the numbers do show that, that the high school graduate and some college with no degree, the median weekly earnings are very similar. And yet if you compare those to the students who are earning bachelor's degree, they jump significantly. So the most recent statistic I read was around $625 was the weekly earnings, median weekly earnings for someone with a high school diploma, and then it bumps up to $1,025 for someone with a bachelor's degree.

So it's definitely showing that it's worth the investment. And then I also want to mention that other studies have shown it's not just the economic benefits. Yes, they're strong, and they're vital, but there's so many other benefits to a college degree in terms of maturity and in terms of so many different things that happen, so many outcomes of college. So I want to mention, too, that there are other outcomes that really enhance a person's life.

And one of those that I'm really excited about sharing is that - how it trickles down to the next generation and that if you look at the statistics, and you show someone who graduated from high school that the chances of their child attaining a college degree is about 17 percent.

That number jumps to 52 percent if someone has an earned bachelor's degree. So not only are you affecting your life, but you're affecting the life of the next generation, which I think is really profound.

CONAN: Obviously individuals vary, everybody's experience is different.

SMITH: Right. Of course, of course.

CONAN: Let's introduce now Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association and professor of education at Kansas State University, with us by phone from his office in Manhattan, Kansas. Nice to have you with us today.

CHARLIE NUTT: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And there's a big disparity, as we mentioned earlier, between private schools, which tend to graduate a much bigger percentage of their students in four or six years, and public universities. Do public colleges need to do more?

NUTT: I think all universities, Neal, need to do more in relation to the issue of what academic advising is and what student success is. As you heard Kathleen talk, academic advising is much more than just scheduling of courses. It's actually building that relationship with students. It's also working to very carefully teach the students the skills, the behaviors, the attitudes that they need in which to be successful in college.

And so because of that, an institution's got to very carefully define very well for the students and for the faculty and the campus community exactly what academic advising is and why it's so important for students to make that connection. At many private schools, of course, you've got smaller numbers of students, you're able to connect students much more closely at an earlier moment with faculty many times, and that makes a difference.

But at all universities, you can build that relationship that's important if you are very carefully providing the professional development and the type of support that's needed for the advisors and the faculty, as well as the students.

CONAN: You mentioned faculty. It's not just the formal advisors who play critical roles in students' decisions and in their choices.

NUTT: Oh absolutely, absolutely. Richard Light from Harvard University did a study many years ago and wrote the book "Making the Most out of College," and he stated that one of the most underestimated characteristics of a good-quality education is that students' connection with an advisor and particularly many times a faculty advisor during that junior and senior year, as they're really thinking about graduate school or what can I do with this English degree or this political science degree and understanding that there's a difference between a career and a major and how do you move forward within that.

So that connection with whomever it may be, whether it be a faculty member of a professional advisor or a peer advisor, is so very important for students and their success.

CONAN: Should colleges be held accountable for graduation rates?

NUTT: I think colleges should be held accountable for providing the support that's needed for students to be successful, for providing the support to advisors and faculty to create that culture of success, that climate of success and to be held responsible for defining what it is that students need to know.

But we know that you get down to it, students have got to take that responsibility on themselves. The things we want to be sure about is that we've clearly defined for them what that responsibility is, how they can achieve it and then providing the support to do so.

CONAN: Charlie Nutt, thanks for your time today, appreciate it.

NUTT: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association, professor of education at Kansas State University. And let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Abraham(ph), Abraham with us from Muncie, Indiana.

ABRAHAM: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.

ABRAHAM: Yeah, well, I was just going to talk about - this is kind of from an individual standpoint, (unintelligible) rather than like a macro standpoint. But when I was being kind of briefed about college life when I was in high school, they had all kinds of - you know, speakers would come to us and talk to us about how to prepare for college.

And they would talk to us about our future, and they would always, you know, say something along the line about how college wasn't for everyone. But then that's about all they ever explore into it. And I had to work fulltime to go to college, and I went to college for about two-and-a-half years before I dropped out, and my wife also dropped out.

And we found out that college was - you know, we were doing poorly because we had to work fulltime. I was working more than 40 hours a week. My wife was working about 35 to 36. And as we moved along in our service industry careers, we found that, you know, there was nothing preventing us from giving ourselves the life that we wanted without going to college.

And I feel like that's not a very well-represented viewpoint. I feel like I was never really told that that was something that I could do. And we've gotten actually to the point where my wife has moved on - this is in as little as six years from an entry-level position at a clothing retailer that she was able to advance to the point where I no longer have to work.

And we're homeowners, and we have a young son, and we have a couple of dogs, and we live in the suburbs, and it's all very, you know, American dreamy. And I work part-time just for extra money.

CONAN: Well, congratulations. I'm really glad it worked out for you.

ABRAHAM: Well, yeah, it did work out well for me, and I understand that, you know, these things are very, very, you know, individualistic, and it's not really, you know, necessarily very relevant from a large standpoint because, you know, obviously, we have, you know, the future to think about. We can't just tell everybody to go work at a clothing retailer all the time.

CONAN: No, I understand. But do you have kids?

ABRAHAM: I'm sorry. What was that?

CONAN: Do you have children?

ABRAHAM: Yeah. We have one child. He was just born, and that was actually the main reason why I stopped working because...

CONAN: To take care. Yeah.

ABRAHAM: Yeah. I'm a stay-at-home dad now. I'm only working part time, and it's great. But what I, I guess, the gist of what I'm trying to say is that I was never told that, you know, entry-level, uneducated, you know, work was something that was viable, especially since we're in a depressed area. All the factory jobs have left town. Those are kind of what the old guard jobs were.

CONAN: Sure. Yeah. Well, good luck. And are you planning to send your son or your daughter to college?

ABRAHAM: That's up to him.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for the call, Abraham.

ABRAHAM: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And, Kathleen Shea Smith, college is not for everybody.

SMITH: It may not be, and it sounds like it worked out really well for Abraham. And I think - but if we do, again, go back to the statistics and the results, it's just the numbers are really telling as far as the benefits of college. But again, it's an individual decision, and I know that we don't want to impose our views on other people, but I think that the numbers really do speak to the issue.

CONAN: Do you get to talk to students, obviously, before they make their decisions sometimes, but after they've...


CONAN: ...decided to drop out?

SMITH: I have talked to people who've returned, who have come back to talk about how to get back into school. And I think that's something that I really want to stress, is that, in many cases, the credits are still alive and well and can be moved towards a degree, even if there's been a very long gap. I have worked with people who have left FSU, you know, years before, even at other institutions, different people I've met, and that's one piece of advice I give.

If you're in a position to continue, definitely make the contact with the institution where you started. And if you're in a position to continue there, see what your options are. And then if you can move on to another institution, make contact with someone at that new institution and provide your transcript. And it's worth a face-to-face meeting and finding an academic adviser, someone who will really talk with you and have a chance to evaluate your transcript and then make recommendations that are based on your goals and what you're trying to achieve.

CONAN: We're talking about college and graduation, not necessarily the same things. Our guest is Kathleen Shea Smith, assistant director of the Advising First Center for Exploratory Learning at Florida State University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Carrie(ph) is on the line, Carrie calling from Tallahassee.

CARRIE: Hi. Yes. I'm a student at FSU currently, and I just wanted to comment on the mental health services available. I was in a position where I needed to take a medical withdrawal because of my bipolar. And I feel as though if I had a more intimate connection with my advisers, that I may have taken a lighter course load and I wouldn't have had to totally withdraw from school for a number of years. Now I'm back in school, and it's going really well. But I just wanted to comment on that.

CONAN: What do you mean? Your advisers did not take enough time with you? Is that what you're saying?

CARRIE: Yes. And I think it's a matter of comfortability(ph). You know, mental health is something that people are not always, you know, as open about or ask questions about. And I think if we had a more open discussion, then I may have been able to be a little bit more successful early on in my college career.

CONAN: Kathleen Shea Smith, is that something that people are learning to focus on?

SMITH: Yes. And I think a mental health issue or a physical issue, those are issues that definitely interfere with students moving forward and being able to, you know, I guess, just thrive in that environment. And I think that it's such a personal situation, and I feel bad for - that we weren't able to provide the support that she needed at that time.

And I think, again, that just reinforces the need to have a relationship that Charlie, you know, mentioned again, that a one-on-one relationship with an adviser where you feel comfortable sharing what's really happening with you and then talking about the different options.

And I think there are different resources at Florida State where we do connect our students who are experiencing mental health issues. And we're doing the very best we can to make sure that those students are supported and that they're making their educational decisions, you know, weighing all the different options. And I - I'm just hoping that she is - Carrie, that you're doing well now and that you've connected with an adviser at FSU.

CARRIE: I am. And I have made a wonderful connection now, and I'm going to be a senior next year, and I'm excited for graduation.

SMITH: Excellent. And congratulations on that. And, yes - and I think that that's something that I just want to - I want to say, just if you could seek out those relationships to any listeners who are college students and you feel like you're not getting the support you need, that, you know, don't take no for an answer, to seek out, talk to people at different advising offices, talk with your friends, get recommendations until you find that person that you feel you have a connection. Because I think that's what we don't often pay enough attention to, is what the researching is showing, is there are so many different predictors of college success. But the most important predictors are connection and how a student connects academically to the institution, and how the student connects socially.

And I know that Carrie would agree that their friends are just so important, and that they find people that they share those bonds with. And that's just a critical predictor of success. And that's what some of the top researchers are pointing to. So when we think about how do we solve this problem, we need to be thinking about how can we best engage our students. And there are a variety of ways to engage students.

And then, advisers, we're responsible for making sure that our students are connecting to those experiences and that they are getting their needs met, because that's what reinforces their goals. And that's what keeps them connected to the institution, which is really the glue, versus not having those experiences, and then that diminishes their commitment. And it makes it harder to stay in school.

CONAN: Carrie, good luck.

CARRIE: Thank you so much.

SMITH: Good luck, Carrie.

CONAN: And an email from Carol in Davidson, North Carolina: When I started teaching in the early '90s, the administration preached to us that good advising and learning about our students increased retention. But with the massive slashing of budgets, the rise of adjuncts who often teach several places at once, this is just not possible. So, obviously, those cutbacks being felt, I'm sure, in Florida, as well.

SMITH: Yes, yes. The cutbacks are severe. And I know that - the way that we're seeing it in advising is that they're - and not necessarily at Florida State, but I'm seeing this with colleagues across the country, that they're doing more with less. They're seeing more students. They're being spread very thin. And I think that that's something that we have to pay attention to, because if we can invest in good academic advising, then we're investing in our institutions and our students and our graduation rates.

CONAN: Kathleen Shea Smith, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

SMITH: Oh, you're welcome.

CONAN: Kathleen Shea Smith, the assistant director of the Advising First Center for Exploratory Learning at Florida State University, with us from WFSU, our member station there in Tallahassee. Coming up, the TV networks pitched to advertisers with their best new fall shows last week. So where are all the viewers? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.