Stay in school, but not too long
By Stan Jones
President Obama’s plan to make college more affordable is noble in intent but misses the mark in design. If the president and Congress were to focus on the real culprit of high college costs — poor college completion numbers — they could find rare common ground and make substantial headway on a problem that threatens to sink U.S. economic competitiveness.
The president was right when he noted that college is rapidly becoming unaffordable for many. Yet his threats to reduce federal funding to schools that don’t cut tuition may open the door for opponents to push back against reforms by invoking accusations of “price controls” and another “big-government takeover.”
Data show that time, not tuition, is the enemy of college completion.
Today’s college students are dramatically different from the archetype of the U.S. undergraduate: A 2009 Public Agenda study drawing on Education Department data found that less than a quarter of U.S. college students attend full time at residential schools. Most students now commute to campus, balancing jobs, school and often family.
Higher education has done little to adjust to the changing needs of this new majority, with the result that students are spending longer than ever in college. The longer it takes to graduate, the more life gets in the way and the less likely that one will ever graduate. More time on campus also means that more is spent on college, adding high costs as another driver of dropouts. In this instance, time is money.
All this adds up to a startling fact: Less than half of U.S. college students graduate, the National Center for Education Statistics reported last year.