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Getting over the college finish line


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A recent New York City high school graduate — let’s call her Juanita Gomez — has applied to two SUNY campuses, Albany and Old Westbury. The freshman profile at the two colleges is essentially identical. Her credentials — a 3.2 GPA and 500s on her verbal and math SATs — are solid enough for admission to both.

Having done her homework, Juanita is familiar with these schools’ academic and campus life. However, like almost all college applicants, she doesn’t realize that which school she picks may determine whether she earns a B.A.

At SUNY Old Westbury, fewer than half of the students graduate in six years, according to, and the graduation rate for minority students is about the same. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of the SUNY Albany undergrads — and about three-quarters of the minority students — earn a bachelor’s degree in that same period. Put differently, the odds that Juanita will graduate go from even money to two-to-one if she moves upstate. Even if she gets admitted to a more selective school, like Fordham, her chances of graduating won’t significantly improve.

Here’s a hair-on-fire statistic: While almost every freshman begins college believing that she’ll graduate, 40% leave without receiving a degree. At public universities, the dropout rate is 50%.

African-American and Latino students, those from poor families, immigrant youth and those who are the first in their families to go to college stand to gain the most from a college degree. But white students’ odds of earning a B.A. are 10% higher than Latinos’, 20% higher than blacks’ and Pell Grant recipients’ chances.

While dropouts earn slightly more than those who never went beyond high school, these students — nearly 2 million in 2016 — leave college with a pile of debt but without the chance to pay it off by securing the high-paying jobs that a degree would open up. They are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to default on student loans as college graduates.

The true cost — measured not just in dollars-and-cents terms but also in stunted futures for millions of students — is incalculable.

When confronted with these facts, higher education apologists lay the blame on the students, but that excuse doesn’t fly. While some students leave because they can’t pay the bills, economics is hardly the whole story. The graduation rate at universities whose students look alike on paper varies by as many as 20 percentage points.

For poor and minority students, the difference among institutions is even worse — at some institutions, this opportunity gap has vanished, while at others with the same academic profile, poor and minority students are three or four times less likely to earn a degree than their classmates.

In short, students are not the biggest problem — it’s the universities. A school system that graduated only 60% of its students would be labeled a dropout factory; a company that had so much trouble keeping its customers would go out of business. But campus leaders aren’t held accountable for this sorry state of affairs. Nobody gets fired because students are dropping out.

In “The College Dropout Scandal,” I lay out six strategies proven to move the needle, like sending text nudges to keep students on track, quickly spotting and supporting students who are floundering, imbuing undergraduates with what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” and replacing “sage on the stage” lectures with more hands-on classes.

If colleges are to boost graduation rates, they must show their students that they are not being batch-processed like Perdue chickens — that they belong on a campus that values them for more than their tuition check. But while college presidents talk the talk, most aren’t willing to make the changes needed to get things done.

Economists forecast that, by the end of 2020, the American economy will have 55 million job openings, two-thirds of which will require some form of postsecondary education. Will we have the young people with the skills and credentials?

Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of “The College Dropout Scandal."