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Scrutinize colleges

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Thousands of first-year undergraduate college students in Arkansas and elsewhere have started fall semester classes for what most assume will be a four-year journey to graduation day. However, what many don’t realize is that the odds are against them, judging from chronically low graduation rates.

According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, under half of those who graduated in 2017-2018 received their bachelor’s degree in four years. In Arkansas, the average four-year public university saw just over one quarter–28 percent–of its students graduate in four years. Private schools did not perform much better, with an average four-year graduation rate of 39 percent.

And yet, despite these dismal graduation percentages, tuition continues to rise. The average cost of in-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions that award master’s and doctoral degrees has increased 175 percent over the last 20 years.

As tuition has increased, so has student debt. The average loan debt for students who graduated in 2019 was $28,950, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. While higher education remains a good investment for many students, thousands of others leave college without a degree or cannot find a job that pays them enough to cover their living expenses.

Many of these issues–low graduation rates, tuition and fee hikes, and rising student debt–can and should be more closely monitored and studied by administrators and trustees. While college trustees should not micromanage day-to-day decisions, they should pay close attention to their institutions’ graduation rates, average student loan debt, and career placement rate.

Many colleges prefer to focus on six-year graduation rates, made available on the US Department of Education’s College Navigator website, or even eight-year rates, as found on the department’s College Scorecard, because they make institutions look better. But a two- or four-year delay in graduation piles additional costs and debt on students that should not be ignored or dismissed.

In the interest of transparency and accountability, colleges and universities should annually disclose four-year, five-year, and six-year graduation rates by in-state and out-of-state students. If they don’t, trustees, legislators, and state education officials should request them.


Skip Rutherford of Little Rock is dean emeritus of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Anna Sillers is the data analyst fellow for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, DC

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