Ken Hare In Depth: Alabama's public universities could be called 'Dropout U'

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Each of Alabama's 13 state-supported four-year colleges could appropriately be dubbed "Dropout U," because not one of them graduates half of their students in four years. In fact, all but two of them -- Auburn University and the University of Alabama -- fail to graduate more than half of them in six years.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics web site, the percentage of first time, full-time students who graduated in four years from an Alabama public university ranged from a high of 41 percent at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa to a low of just 8 percent at Alabama State University.

With fewer than half of their students graduating in four years, perhaps it's time that we stopped calling them "four-year colleges."

But it's not just a problem that it's taking longer for college students to graduate. In Alabama, only about half of first-time, full-time students are likely to ever graduate.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, about 48 percent of Alabama's public four-year college students graduate after six years compared to about 56 percent for public universities throughout the nation.

The graduation rate after six years in an Alabama public university ranged from a high of 67 percent at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa to a low of 26 percent at Alabama State. Auburn University had a six-year graduation rate of 68 percent. All of the remaining Alabama public four-year universities had a six-year graduation rate of less than 50 percent.

Here are the six-year and four-year graduation rates for Alabama's public universities:

* The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa had a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent and a four-year rate of 41 percent.

* Auburn University had a six-year graduation rate of 68 percent and a four-year rate of 38 percent.

* The University of Alabama Huntsville had a six-year graduation rate of 47 percent and a four-year rate of 16 percent.

* The University of Alabama Birmingham had a six-year graduation rate of 48 percent and a four-year rate of 25 percent.

* The University of Montevallo had a six-year graduation rate of 47 percent and a four-year rate of 21  percent.

* Troy University had a six-year graduation rate of 35 percent and a four-year rate of 15 percent.

* The University of South Alabama had a six-year graduation rate of 37 percent and a four-year rate of 14 percent.

* Alabama A&M University had a six-year graduation rate of 32 percent and a four-year rate of 10 percent.

* The University of North Alabama had a six-year graduation rate of 32 percent and a four-year rate of 11 percent.

* Jacksonville State University had a six-year graduation rate of 29 percent and a four-year rate of 10 percent.

* The University of West Alabama had a six-year graduation rate of 27  percent and a four-year rate of 16 percent.

* Auburn University Montgomery had a six-year graduation rate of 30 percent and a four-year rate of 14 percent. (Updated with data from AUM)

* Alabama State University had a six-year graduation rate of 26 percent and a four-year rate of 8 percent.

The public should be aware that the graduation rates required by the federal government are flawed. College officials point out that most colleges have many students who transfer from one college to another and who leave to work and return later. But the federal formula, called IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Systems),  factors out most such students. The data collection system targets only first-time, full-time students who get degrees from the places they started.

Transfer students, part-time students, and those who take a break and re-enroll either later or elsewhere don't count for or against a college's statistics. Nationally, about 40 percent of college students are not currently a factor in computing graduate rates.

There has been much debate nationally over how to track part-time and transfer students, but many college officials have resisted such changes. That leaves the current rates -- as incomplete and unsatisfactory as they are -- as the only truly comparable way to measure college graduation rates. By that measure, Alabama's public colleges are doing an abysmal job of graduating their students.

But this is not just an Alabama problem. Low college retention and graduation rates plague the nation, and the debate over how to address the issue is national in scope.

An article last year in The New York Times  points to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that show that in the year 2000, 38 percent of Americans age 25 to 34 had a degree from a community college or a four-year institution, putting the nation in fourth place among the 23 developed nations tracked by the OECD. By 2011, the United States was down to 11th place.

But it's not because Americans aren't enrolling in college.  More than 70 percent of Americans enroll in a four-year college, according to the Times, which is the seventh highest among the OECD nations. But fewer than two-thirds graduate. Include community colleges and the graduation rate drops to 53 percent. According to the Times article, only Hungary has a worse record.

The result is that students, parents and taxpayers are spending a lot of money on students who start college but never complete it. The students incur a lot of debt, the taxpayers spend a lot of money, but the students leave without the degree that is their best bet for getting a job and increasing their earning potential.

When WSFA news reporter Jennifer Oravet took a look at the college graduation issue in Alabama, state college officials pointed to the cost of college as one of the issues contributing to low graduation rates.

But is the answer to improving rates simply increasing access to student aid?

Clearly that would help in some cases, but it is also an inefficient way of addressing the issue. According to the OECD, state and local governments in the United States already spend about $9,200 per college student. Many of those students do not graduate even with generous student aid, and some who get aid would manage to graduate even if they did not have it.

I believe there does need to be an increase in student aid, but that any increase should be targeted only to those students who have shown they have the knowledge and work ethic to complete their degrees. I also believe that college presidents and trustees need to stop raising tuition and fees far faster than inflation.

But there is another factor to college graduation rates that many college administrators are reluctant to focus on, and that is the issue of whether too many students who enter college are truly prepared to succeed.

In 2009, according to the Times, American 15-year-olds scored in 17th place on reading tests out of 65 countries, and 27th place in math and 23rd in science.

In Alabama, about 36 percent of the graduates of public high schools in the state who attended an Alabama public college had to take either remedial math, remedial English, or both.

Many colleges beset by financial troubles are looking at increasing enrollment as one way of addressing those money woes. But as colleges dip deeper into the pool of potential students, they could pull in even greater numbers of poorly prepared students -- and that would only make their retention and graduation issues worse.

There is one strategy to address the graduation issue that everyone should agree is not acceptable, and that is for colleges to lower their standards and inflate grades.

College grade inflation is already a serious problem, and focusing on improving graduation rates could tempt some college administrators to lower standards even further.

As I noted in a column on this issue last year, the national data on college graduation rates have significant flaws as currently measured, but it is important nonetheless for parents, students and taxpayers.

"In a society that cares about the credential, finishing college matters," Mark Schneider, a former U.S. commissioner for education statistics, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "Employers don't advertise they want six years of college. They want a degree."


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

Copyright 2014 WSFA 12 News.  All rights reserved.