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Andy RosenAndrew S. Rosen is the author of Rebooting for the New Talent Economy and a frequent speaker on the challenges facing higher education in a knowledge economy. He is also chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., one of the world’s largest and most diverse education organizations.

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The “scandal” is that America Does a Lousy Job of Graduating Nontraditional Students

Posted by Andy Rosen on September 21, 2011

Richard Vedder describes as a “scandal” his estimate that only 40% of students who receive Pell Grants graduate with their bachelor’s degrees, and he views that fact that he’s had to estimate that number — it’s not readily available from Department of Education statistics — as a second scandal. He argues, convincingly, that with all the data ED pumps out every year, it’s shocking how some seriously important information is somehow unavailable.

Let me add a third “scandal” to the list: the fact that only 17% of students who have two or more Department of Education–defined “risk factors” graduate from their undergraduate degree programs.  These “risk factors” are pretty mainstream: if you work full-time, you have a risk factor. Or you have kids, or are financially independent of your parents, or are older than 24. Each is a risk factor, and if you have more than one such factor, you’ve only one in six chance of graduating.

While socioeconomic status is not a defined risk factor, there’s high correlation between Pell recipients and students with multiple risk factors. Poorer students, older students, working students — all are less likely to graduate. To the extent Vedder is suggesting that the Pell program itself is a scandal because it’s not leading to enough graduations, I don’t agree. The scandal is not with the funding system (though there’s plenty to talk about there) but with the fact our system is ineffective at getting riskier students through to graduation. Some institutions are better than others — Kaplan University’s graduation rate for students with multiple risk factors, for example, is nearly double the national rate — but they’re all too low.

The Department of Education has no problem declaring crises in American higher ed. Shouldn’t the shockingly low national graduation rate of students other than the right out of high school, single, nonworking, family-supported “traditional” student be at the top of that list? And shouldn’t it be leading a national effort to look at existing models that are bucking the trend?

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