Dear Professor—What do you know about dropouts at your campus?   

If you are at all like me, you have been living a mostly placid life as a professor. You do your research and sit on committees. Like most of your colleagues, you regard yourself as an above-average teacher, and you get okay student ratings.

The only time you are pay attention to policymaking by the powers-that-be is if the campus budget gets cut. If I were to ask you what percentage of your university’s undergraduates receive their bachelor’s degree, you are likely to draw a blank. When I tell you that, nationwide, only three out of five students —only half the students at public universities—earn a diploma in six years, you may be surprised. If you teach at a community college, the situation is even worse. Fewer than four in ten students get an associate degree or transfer to a four-year school in six years.

You may not be startled to learn that the graduation rate is lower for minority and first-generation undergraduates as well as those who receive Pell Grants, which go to college students from poor families. But the yawning opportunity gap—64 percent of white students versus 40 percent for black students earn a bachelor’s degree—should grab your attention.

Should you be typical of our breed, your initial reaction is to duck the issue: “While this is an unhappy situation, it is not my problem. If the graduation rate is going to improve, we need better students. It is up to the president and his minions to make that happen. I’m just a bystander.”

But the graduation rate at universities with similar profiles can vary by more than 20 percent. And at universities with a similar overall graduation rate, the opportunity gap can be at least as great. Are you surprised to learn that at some schools, white students are three times more likely to graduate than their poor and minority classmates, while at other, these “new gen” students are actually more likely to graduate than students generally.

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