So you’ve got your kid into college, but will they graduate?

Graduation Achievement Student School College Concept
Colleges need to take extra steps to ensure their students make it to graduation.

Just in time for back-to-college, a new book says higher education has a dirty little secret: dropout rates.

David Kirp, author of “The College Dropout Scandal,” says it’s shameful that 40 percent of college students seeking a bachelor’s degree never make it to graduation, especially because help is at hand.

In his book, released this month, Kirp writes, “Every college administrator with a pulse knows the tools that have proven to remedy the dropout problem. They don’t cost a fortune and they don’t require a genius to make them work.”  But they do take leadership and emphasis on the welfare of students, he said.

As if the self-esteem issues of failing weren’t bad enough, many dropouts leave college with debt from the courses they took, but no degree to help them get a job with an income to match their loan payments.  

“Many of them are actually worse off economically than if they hadn’t started college. While they earn a little more than those who never went beyond high school, they leave college with a pile of debt …. Dropouts are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as college grads, and they are four times more likely to default on student loans, thus wrecking their credit and shrinking their career options,” Kirp asserts.

Students of color who come from lower-income families and are first-generation scholars experience greater challenges staying in school because of finances and a lack of college-savvy family members to guide them. Despite how bright those students may be, dropping out can reinforce in their own minds and those of others the idea that they’re not cut out for college, Kirk suggests. 

But a little help – sometimes as simple as an older student talking with incoming freshmen about how it’s normal to feel out of place and overwhelmed that first year and what can be done about it – can make a big difference in keeping those students on track.  

Additionally, the picture is brighter locally. Rochester-area colleges are nearly all above average in their graduation rates, some substantially so. And many are already employing at least some of the methods Kirp says have proved successful in raising those graduation rates further.

Some of the truisms of graduation rates apply, such as those schools that are more selective graduate a higher percentage of students. University of Rochester’s rate (completing a bachelor’s degree in six or fewer years) is at the top locally, at 86 percent. 

But other truisms didn’t apply, such as state schools’ graduation rate averaging 50 percent or lower. SUNY Geneseo, known as one of the more selective schools in the SUNY system, graduated 81 percent of its students in the six-year cohort beginning in 2012. 

Brockport, at 65 percent, was lower, but still above average. In addition, 73 percent of black students in that cohort graduated, beating both the campus average and the percentage of white students. The school has not been able to dig into the statistics yet to figure out why black students are graduating at a much higher rate there than at other schools. While that rate is unusual even at Brockport, It’s apparently not a statistical anomaly, either, as there were 783 black students, or 11.1 percent of the student body, last school year. 

Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, recommends schools use five major tools to improve graduation rates: 


  • Share more information with students, such as how to seek help after a failing grade or where to find internship opportunities.  
  • Give nudges, perhaps in the form of text reminders about important deadlines or tasks that need to be completed, such as selecting next semester’s courses.
  • Data analytics, ranging from tracking early warning signs of struggles and sharing that with appropriate adults, to looking at which courses are oversubscribed, preventing students from getting their course requirements in time.
  • Offer experiences that generate a sense of belonging, from social outings with faculty members to group volunteering events.
  • Revamp curriculum. Research suggests gateway courses such as remedial math sometimes present an insurmountable hurdle; teaching those courses in a more engaging way than straight lecture would help more students pass them. Additionally, four-year schools are sometimes out of sync with community colleges that feed them, causing transfer students to lose credits and faith. 

That last piece is particularly important, as Kirp says 40 percent of college freshmen are enrolled in community college, and 80 percent of those plan to gain a bachelor’s degree by transferring if they make it that far.  

Some local colleges report they have added executive-level positions in their administrations tasked with improving graduation rates, and they are employing some of the tactics Kirp outlines in his book. Kirp provides in-depth case studies of a number of schools that have improved their retention, sometimes by targeting demographic groups that are prone to dropping out.

The University of Central Florida, for instance, looked to a nearby community college to help solve its lagging graduation rate. UCF and Valencia Community College worked out an agreement whereby the community college’s courses were better aligned with majors at UCF, and UCF guaranteed admission to its bachelor’s programs for any student who graduated from Valencia. Immediately, the community college’s graduation rate doubled.

Similarly, Rochester Institute of Technology recently announced a somewhat similar program with Monroe, Finger Lakes and Genesee community colleges, allowing students who follow prescribed course paths at the community colleges for a year before their automatic entry to RIT to work on a bachelor’s degree. The students will gain an associate’s degree, too, after their second year in the program.

RIT boasts a 70 percent graduation rate overall, though the rates vary substantially from program to program, notes James C. Hall, dean of the University Studies Division and executive director of  the School of Individualized Study at RIT. The university it always trying to improve its graduation rates, he said. 

One step RIT is making is moving to a profession advising staff for all undergrad students, instead of tacking advising duties onto professors’ workloads. Though faculty still have a role in advising, the university had done more work to coach the advisors whether they are staff or faculty. 

“There’s more general understanding on the part of faculty and staff on just how important keeping students is to the financial viability of the institution,” Hall said. “Like any customer, you want to keep them once you find them.”

Hall said the university also adopted the Starfish software that can provide early alerts to advisors when a student seems to be floundering. The system also allows a student to send up a red flag to get help without a face-to-face interaction, something that stymies this particularly tech-savvy but socially inexperienced generation. 

Still, though, Hall says there’s no substitute for human interaction.  

“None of that beats a student knocking on a faculty door,” Hall said. That’s the way for students to gain high-quality information, such as an opportunity to work in a faculty members’ laboratory, or an internship, and the way to share what’s bugging them in a way that texting can’t solve. “The more opportunities students have to share in a human release sort of what it is generating anxiety for them,” the more likely they are to overcome that issue, he suggested. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Kirp puts it this way: “the more students believe that they belong, the better they do academically.”  

College retention programs don’t always have to focus on student’s own problems and barriers. They gain a sense of self-worth by helping others, too. Both University of Rochester and Brockport have community service projects that are tied into orientation. 

Roberts Wesleyan College’s new head of diversity, Herb Alexander, decided to focus on students of color, who tend to have lower graduation rates. The overall rate is 68 percent, but it’s 48 percent for African Americans and 36 percent for Latinos. Alexander recruited seven black male students – all members of the college’s basketball team – to help mentor students in Rochester city charter  schools.

“This is a way of instilling the value of getting a college education,” a college administrator said.  And it may serve as a reminder for the college students, too.  Roberts’ graduation rate had been nine points lower just a couple of years ago. But then the college became a little more selective in accepting students, resulting in a better retention rate. 

At Nazareth College, the numbers have been going the other way, slipping steadily over the last few years. The most recent six-year cohort, the class that entered in 2012, had a graduation rate of 66 percent, a little above average. But the class entering in 2008 graduated 75 percent. 

Andrew Morris, Associate Vice President for Retention and Student Success, was hired in 2013 to deal with the problem. The college didn’t know then what the graduation rate this last year would be, but it had a good idea based a bellwether statistic: the percentage of freshmen who return for their sophomore year. That stat had been going down even earlier. More recently, though, it has been going up again, Morris said, indicating the graduation rate will rebound in a few years. 

Morris said the college has been doing some deep data mining, trying to find danger points on which to focus. One that turned up is that students who don’t complete 30 credits in their first two semesters are more likely to fall behind and drop out. As a result, the college takes action once a student finishes one of the first two semesters with less than 15 hours.   

“We want to make sure you’re having a conversation about what is the plan, talking with your advisor about what happened and why it happened and what you’re going to do about it,” Morris said. But staff have learned to take care in the language they use during this conversation, he said, to avoid making a student feel there’s something wrong with them for failing to complete 30 hours. 

Kirp’s book talks a lot about first-generation students and minority students assuming the  hiccups they encounter come from their being unfit for college. It might be a common problem for everyone, but others know how to work through it.  

 Nazareth continues to try to connect people face to face, Morris said, sometimes through unexpected and subtle ways.”There’s almost some social engineering that can happen,” he said, noting the college fixed up a fountain that had been in disrepair for some time and planted flowers around it. Suddenly, it because a gathering spot for students. 

Kirp’s book describes Amherst College also taking a facilities approach to break down the barriers and lack of inclusion caused by athletes commandeering long tables in the dining halls. It brought in round tables instead, limiting the number of people who could gather at a single table. 

Morris mentioned a more surreptitious tactic and one that he doesn’t expect Nazareth will adopt: a Pennsylvania college slowed the speed of wireless internet service in students’ rooms and boosted it in common areas in their dormitories, forcing students to come out of their rooms if they wanted high-speed internet.  

“This is the reality that students are plugged into their phones and social media,” Morris said, but engineering their internet service to force interaction may be going too far. “How are we going to meet them where they are?”

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