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Education Secretary Targets Colleges With Low Graduation Rates


The New York Times - June 5, 2012 - By Tanya Caldwell and Jacques Steinberg

The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on Tuesday morning that the Obama administration has not done nearly enough to address the steep dropout rate among college students.

Many college students are not completing college in six years, let alone four, according to a government survey in 2009 that found that nearly two of every three students who started college did not graduate from that same college in four years, and that more than 40 percent did not graduate in six. A critical factor cited by some of those who dropped out was the distraction of a part-time job, which was necessary for them in order to afford their education. (Some of the students in the study did transfer, and may have graduated from other institutions.)

Mr. Duncan told reporters and editors in a newsroom meeting at The New York Times that he wanted to “reward and incentivize universities to build cultures around completion,” and to shift federal resources away from those colleges with a high concentration of students who fail to graduate.

Too many colleges, Mr. Duncan said, are “just sort of throwing students in, trying to throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim.”

Mr. Duncan said that he considered an institution’s completion rate to be such an important yardstick, and that a low graduation rate should be enough to persuade a prospective applicant to look elsewhere.

“When I ran the Chicago Public Schools, we tracked this data very carefully,” said Mr. Duncan who recalled students that had identical G.P.A.’s and test scores, but went to two different universities and ended up with wildly different outcomes. “I started, frankly, steering kids to certain places and away from others,” he said.

Mr. Duncan’s visit came just hours before he met with leaders from 10 colleges and universities to announce an effort to add more transparency to another big factor in college decisions: financial aid information. According to a news release, participating colleges and universities will soon commit to providing incoming students with easy-to-understand financial information, including the net costs of college (after grants and scholarships are accounted for), and data that will give families a sense of their return on investment, including graduation rates and the rates at which students are able to repay their loans without defaulting.

Making financial aid information easier to navigate is a key piece of the Obama administration’s efforts to help families find colleges that fit their financial and educational needs, according to the release. The administration, in partnership with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, plans to release a new Financial Aid Shopping Sheet this fall that includes a model of what a clear and informative financial aid award letter would look like.