Unravelling the Four-Year Myth

Doing some later winter organizing, I came across a gem of a report from 2014 that is still incredibly fresh and relevant.  The “Four-Year Myth: Make College More Affordable” from Complete College America, a multi-state alliance calling attention to strategies to help students complete post-secondary education on time. Read the report here.

What’s so valuable about this report is that it highlights some of the pernicious problems facing students at the post-secondary level.  One of the report’s contentions is that the measurement of “on-time graduation” for post-secondary institutions is actually normalizing very slow completion.  Based on national accountability data, four-year degree students are considered “on-time” if students graduate in six years, and two-year degree program students are considered “on-time” if they graduate in three years.

These measures may be fine for measuring institutional effectiveness, but when it comes to an actual student, each additional year of post-secondary education carries a big financial burden and slows their entry into the workforce.  By trying to be fair to institutions, we’re actually normalizing a very slow and inefficient path to graduation for most students.

This is how bad things really are:

  • Just 36% of students in four-year programs graduate within four years.
  • Just 5% of students in two-year degree programs graduate in two years.

The report also points out some of the contributing factors:

  • There is one advisor for every 400 post-secondary students;
  • Students wander the course catalog, accumulating an average of 134 credits for a 120-credit degree, and an average of an 81 credit for a 60-credit degree. This is called the “over-crediting” phenomenon.
  • 60% of Bachelor’s degree students transfer colleges, and in the process, they lose some or all of their credits. This loss of credits contributes to a slower time to graduation.

To address some of their problems, the report recommends some key strategies, such as:

  • Organize college programs from dozens of individual majors into a simpler set of “Meta-Majors” like STEM, social sciences, business, education, and liberal arts. Starting with a choice among 6-8 meta-majors is better for the student than choosing among dozens of majors.  Then as the student starts to work through some introductory courses in the meta-major, they can learn about and select from the subsidiary majors.
  • Clearly map out the recommended sequence of courses over two or four years for each meta-major, demonstrating that on-time graduation is doable.
  • Align mathematics to each program of study, rather than fostering a one-size-fits-all approach to math. Mathematics is the biggest stumbling block for students, so it is vital that the level of math match the actual needs of the major.

Implications for Pathways Coalitions

These recommendations and reforms happening within college echo the pathways-oriented reforms that are also underway in many middle and high schools.

In forming a regional pathways coalition, secondary participants should be aware of these trends within post-secondary education and work together to create as much seamless alignment as possible.  A good first place to start is trying to align Meta-Pathways with Meta-Majors.  I really appreciate the Meta-Pathways structure that Pennsylvania adopted a few years ago: Arts & Communications; Business and Finance; Engineering and Technology; Human Services and Science & Health.  This is simple enough to not overwhelm the student.  Many colleges are actively organizing their majors now – get the conversation started and make sure it is built around a solid understanding of the workforce.

Further, implementing pathways systems at the K-12 level will really help students make a smoother transition into the post-secondary environment because graduating students will have a much better understanding of the career area they want to pursue.  If students can finish high school with a number of meaningful career development and employer engagement experiences, they will be ready to make a more informed selection about a college Meta-Major.  Also, if they have a better sense of the career interest that is guiding their enrollment in postsecondary education, they’ll probably make a better selection of school, reducing the transfer rate and loss of credits.

Unfortunately, there is no empirical evidence yet I’m aware of that directly links these secondary and post-secondary outcomes together, but we need to be tracking this data as soon as possible and follow where the evidence leads. To start with, make sure your secondary and post-secondary partners get a copy of this report, and seriously consider its recommendations as part of your shared pathways agenda.

Hans Meeder is President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (www.nc3t.com).  NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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