Recently, Money College highlighted a number of schools that are bucking the trend toward ever-longer undergraduate degree programs. But for every school bucking a trend, many more exemplify it. That's certainly the case for the select 25 schools -- a number of them in Texas -- that wound up at rock-bottom on a recent list of the schools with the lowest four-year graduation rates in the nation.
The list, compiled by CBS's MoneyWatch.com contributor Lynn O'Shaughnessy using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, showed that more than a dozen of the worst 25 schools for on-time graduation actually boasted a four-year graduation rate of zero percent. Beyond that, the list fell especially hard on state universities in Texas: Seven of the schools with the 25 lowest on-time graduation rates are in the Lone Star State.
"Clearly Texas is doing something wrong," writes MoneyWatch contributor Lynn O'Shaughnessy, adding later in the piece: "What these schools have excelled at is producing students who end up leaving college with no degree, but lots of student debt, and that's disgraceful."So are these schools, scattered largely throughout Texas and a few other states in the West and Midwest, saddling students with loan debt and failing to help them speed through college? According to Mary Hendrix, vice president for student access and success at Texas A&M University-Commerce, that explanation oversimplifies the reality at many regional schools that enroll large numbers of working parents and other part-time students. A&M–Commerce came in fourth on O'Shaughnessy's list of schools with the worst on-time graduation rates, with a four-year graduation rate of zero percent. However, Hendrix calls the statistic O'Shaughnessy cited "misleading."
"Certainly, we have students who graduate in four years," Hendrix says. "For the select institutions cited in Ms. O'Shaughnessy's list of colleges with the best on-time graduation rates, one will find stricter admission requirements, as well as significant institutional financial assistance. For regional institutions, such as Texas A&M University–Commerce, many students work either full- or part-time, and have families. Often, they aren't able to complete 10 courses in a year."
The claim that admissions rates, at least, differ greatly between the best and worst colleges for on-time graduation rates seems beyond question. In 2009, the most recent year that data were available, the University of Virginia -- which ranked as the highest non-military institution on the MoneyWatch list for best on-time graduation rates -- turned away 14,341 of 21,109 total applicants, or about 68 percent of the pool of hopefuls. By comparison, the list's college with the worst on-time graduation rate, Great Basin College in Nevada, accepted 100 percent of its applicants in 2009; Texas A&M–Commerce accepted 59 percent of its 3,678 applicants.
Besides the disparities in admission rates, Hendrix notes that many students who enroll at A&M–Commerce have not been prepared for college by their high school coursework. She says that 60% of entering freshman are enrolled in remedial courses each year. Though Hendrix expresses her hope that the school could improve its on-time graduation rate with more online course offerings and a new program that assigns a "success coach" to each incoming freshman, she says that a four-year graduation schedule may not fall within the reach of many of the students who enroll there -- at least not without more federal and state aid for students.
"[We are] focused on improving our graduation rate," she says, "by working with public schools to align expectations for college readiness and shorten the time to degree. [However,] if our standard for measurement is time to degree, and four years is the goal desired, we must increase federal and state financial assistance so that students have the funds needed to complete [a full-time course load] each year and provide for their families."
Hendrix also says that often a four-year college plan is not realistic for many nontraditional students, particularly in the face of cutbacks in federal and state assistance.
"What we may be forgetting," she says, "is that many students who are enrolled in regional institutions are actually working at the same time they are going to school, and therefore contributing to the economy and reducing their debt loads.... Perhaps we should reconsider the four-year graduation rate metric as the desired goal and, instead, focus on the cost of the degree compared to employment earnings."
Texas A&M–Commerce student body president Taylor Fore, speaking to the school's low four-year graduation rate from his perspective as a student, says that while A&M–Commerce should work to improve its on-time graduation rate, a single statistic should not be taken as the entire story of academic life at his school.
"I think it's important to recognize that all students enter college with a different plan and under different circumstances," Fore says. "While the graduation rate is something I think our institution can continue to work on, I think providing a quality education is much more important than pumping students through a four-year factory."
Texas Schools Lag in On-Time Graduation Rates