How to Pick a College That Cares if You Graduate

How to Pick a College That Cares if You GraduateThat appears to be snow falling outside my kitchen window, but I know spring will soon be here, and another 2 million high school juniors, with their fretful parents, will be out looking for the right college.

They will be thinking: "Can I get in?" But they should be asking: "Can I graduate?" I have found a new online tool with an answer to that question, which is not asked often enough to solve a stubborn failing of the U.S. educational system.

It is encouraging that American teenagers are so convinced of the worth of a few more years of learning that two-thirds of them go off to some kind of college right after they get their high school diplomas. College may not be for everyone, but it is hard to decide the issue intelligently without giving it a try, and it is good that most young people take that risk.

If only those same college applicants and their parents did not worry so much about being admitted to a college whose name will impress their neighbors and instead thought about how they were going to learn something useful and get a degree. Only about half of Americans starting college acquire a degree within six years, and for students who start in four-year schools like the ones in the Education Trust data base, the graduation rate goes up to only about 60 percent.

To dramatize the problem, the Education Trust, a non-profit organization in Washington that works to improve education for minority and low-income students, has produced an interactive Web tool called College Results Online and two reports on college graduation rates that I think should be part of every family's college research. They are on the group's Web site . I also got some tips from Education Trust policy research director Kevin Carey on good questions to ask during college tours.

But first, a warning about the standard praise of good graduation rates, and the standard excuse for bad ones:

Very selective colleges like Amherst, where, College Results Online reveals, 96.8 percent of students who arrived in 1997 had graduated by 2003, or Princeton or Brown or Harvard, whose six-year graduation rates were 96.5 percent, 95.7 percent and 97.8 percent respectively, have a right to be proud of their success. And the many second-tier state universities that didn't have even half of their 1997 freshmen graduating in six years should do better.

But a lot of it is not the colleges' fault. The mostly middle-class academic stars who get into Amherst have all the motivation, family support and academic skills they need to get a degree, and most of them do it in four years, not six. The less affluent and less self-confident students who go to Cal State Los Angeles or Texas State San Marcos often have families to support, full-time jobs and other distractions that make it less likely they will ever walk across a university stage in cap and gown.

Carey, in the first of his two reports, "One Step From the Finish Line: Higher College Graduation Rates Are Within Our Reach," acknowledges that you can explain "part of the variation in institutional graduation rates by analyzing students' economic status -- institutions with many low-income students have lower graduation rates than those with few."

"There's a seductive logic to this," he said, "one that implicitly excuses whatever graduation-rate outcomes occur at the higher-poverty or less selective institutions. It's easy to become locked into a very deterministic, input-output model of higher education success. But in the end this approach is as unhelpful as a simple ranking from top to bottom."

Why is that? Well, the reason brings us to the whole purpose of this new Web tool. Colleges can actually improve their graduation rates if they try, Carey said. "Because even when we used the results from regression analysis to help us hold all of these crucial factors constant -- by comparing institutions only to quite similar institutions on measures like student preparation, size, selectivity, percent low-income students, and institutional support -- some institutions consistently outperform their peers ."

His second report, "Choosing to Improve: Voices From Colleges and Universities With Better Graduation Rates," shows what some colleges have done to make their graduation rates better. I was surprised at the examples, some being universities I only read about on the sports pages, like Florida State and Notre Dame, and some being places I never read about at all, like the University of Northern Iowa or Alcorn State in Mississippi.

I was just ignorant, as usual. Florida State turns out to be one of the few big universities whose minority students graduate at nearly the same rate as its white students. One important reason is the school's full-time student advisers, who do not just sit in their offices waiting for problems to walk in but follow a policy of contacting every student at least three times a semester by e-mail, phone or in person.

At Notre Dame, when it was noticed that significant numbers of students, particularly minorities, were flunking or dropping out of its freshman chemistry course, science professors set up an alternative class for low-performing students that covered the same material, but included mandatory study group sessions. That raised the success rate by 50 percent.

University of Northern Iowa administrators heard the usual student complaints about not being able to graduate in time because required courses were full. College professors I talk to often blame this on lack of funds from the state legislature, but officials at Northern Iowa actually decided to do something about it. They analyzed the course requirements in each of their degree programs and added extra sections or took other measures to relieve the log jams.

When Alcorn State realized only half of its freshmen made it to their sophomore year, it created a College of Excellence that lowered class sizes and increased the number of advisers for both freshman and sophomores. This eventually cut the first year drop-out rate in half, and in time raised the graduation rate.

At the Education Trust Web site, click on College Results Online and you can enter the name of any of 1,400 undergraduate institutions in the data base to see how its graduation rate compares to similar schools. Or you can look at certain groups of schools. Or you can try my favorite option for the early stages of a college search: type in what kind of college you want, in terms of size, median SAT, public or private and other factors, and the Web tool gives you a list, ranked by graduation rate.

The Web site explains in more detail than I have space for exactly how the researchers chose the groups of peer colleges, which is good because some schools are going to complain about being misfiled. The University of Maryland, with a graduation rate of 70.7 percent, is only 14th in its peer group of 16, far below number one University of California at Berkeley, 85.4 percent and number two University of Michigan, 85.1 percent. And George Washington University, 75.1 percent, is only 12th out of 16 in a list topped by Notre Dame, 94.6 percent, and University of Virginia, 92 percent.

George Cathcart, spokesman for Maryland, said the university is working hard to improve its graduation rate, which has reached 72.9 percent since the 2003 data on the Web site. He said since 1998, the rate for African Americans has gone from 49.4 to 56.8 percent and for Hispanics from 50 to 67.5 percent. Tracy Schario, spokeswoman for George Washington, said the university's rate has reached 78.7 percent, and that its peer list is different than the one used by the Education Trust.

James Madison University in Virginia, on the other hand, looked very good in comparison with a six-year graduation rate of 79.9 percent. It is number one on a list of 16, beating number two UC Santa Barbara, 73.5 percent, and number three University of New Hampshire, 72.6 percent.

I used the equipment to create what I call the "Broke Parent with Average Student" list. It has only public universities whose median freshman SAT scores are between 1000 and 1100. At number one, fittingly enough, was my grandfather's alma mater, The Citadel military academy in Charleston, S.C., with a 71.9 percent graduation rate. The next four schools were, like the Citadel, relatively small and often focused on particular subjects, such at the Maine Maritime Academy, 69.5 percent, the Millersville University of Pennsylvania, 65.9 percent, Penn State-Erie, 65.7 percent, and the Massachusetts College of Art, 65.3 percent. But also high on the list, at number six, was the University of Northern Iowa, the same school that Carey praised for fixing its course gridlock. It is a state school with many departments, nearly 11,000 students and a graduation rate of 65.1 percent.