Interview: “Time to Degree” is Key
May 21, 2018
Michael Dannenberg sat down with Commonwealth Magazine’s Executive Editor Michael Jonas for an in-depth discussion on what makes for a quality, state or national college promise program. Jonas’ write up appears below. His full podcast interview and be accessed here.
No one doubts the value of a college education. It is increasingly a requirement for entry into the middle class. But the road to a degree is filled with lots of potholes and obstacles. One top of it all is the ever-rising price of higher education, which is saddling many students with thousands of dollars of debt as they walk out the door with their degree — if they get a degree at all.
The three key words in the college affordability conversation are “time to degree,” according to Michael Dannenberg on this week’s Codcast. Getting more students to finish their higher ed programs and obtain degrees on time are crucial, says the one-time adviser to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who now serves as director of strategic initiatives for policy at Education Reform Now in Washington, DC.
For half of all students who enroll in higher ed institutions, the “time to degree” is endless — they never graduate, says Dannenberg. Of those who do get degrees, it takes students seeking a four-year bachelor’s degree five years, on average, to complete a program, while those seeking two-year degrees typically take three years to finish. That added time is added cost – 20 percent for BA candidates, 33 percent for those seeking an associate’s degree – for students and to public financial aid budgets.
Dannenberg, who has advised every Democratic presidential nominee over the last four election cycles on higher education policy and also served as an adviser to late Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell (think Pell Grants), says there are lots of well-intentioned efforts to ease the college affordability crunch that don’t deliver.
Encouraging students to first obtain a lower-cost community college degree and then transfer to a four-year institution is one of them. Community college is great for those pursuing a career that requires an associate’s degree, says Dannenberg. It’s a poor choice, however, for those seeing it as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree. He says only 14 percent of those who make that switch wind up completing a bachelor’s degree program, a figure 30 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for equally qualified peers who enroll directly in four-year schools out of high school.
The biggest overall factor affecting completion rates in higher education is the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum. One of every four students arriving on a US college campus requires remedial coursework before being ready to earn college credits, and these students are 74 percent more likely than better-prepared peers to drop out.
Better high school preparation and strong support structures for students once they’re at college can help boost completion rates. We also need to start holding higher education institutions accountable for completion rates, says Dannenberg. “Student completion is often not a priority for leaders in higher education, though they may say otherwise,” he says.
With states having dramatically pulled back on funding of public higher education institutions, Dannenberg says we are running a “giant social experiment” in which more and more of the burden of paying for college is being shifted onto individuals. The result for too many is crushing debt.
“Free college” or “debt-free college” initiatives being launched by some states or high education institutions are encouraging moves, he says, but they have to be accompanied by attention to things like high school curriculum rigor and accountability for institution completion rates. They also have to and include support for attending both two-year and four-year schools.
It can’t be “free college on the cheap,” says Dannenberg.
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