Colleges As An Engine To Succeed. Really?

Take a guess: What is the average graduation rate at America's four-year, non-profit colleges? Would you guess 85%? 75%? Maybe 65%? (Surely, it can't be that low.) Guess again. On America's college campuses, the average graduation rate for students six years after enrolling as freshmen is 55%. That means that a student has a little more than a 50/50 chance of graduating from college. And, for students from low-and moderate-income families, the chances are even lower.

A new report from Third Way, a public policy think tank, shows that this high level of "institutional failure" usually associated with just the for-profit colleges is in fact much broader. Non-profit private schools, which see themselves above criticism, are not providing an education worthy of the time and cost associated with it. For far too many students, college is not the ticket to upward mobility it is espoused to be. It is just not right that students must borrow to get only a 50% shot at graduation. Most believe that college is a good investment. While that might be true for some students, those who have to borrow are precisely the ones most put at risk by these promises. Currently a large majority -- 70% of students -- have to take on loans to afford college.

In the Third Way study, only a quarter of four-year private non-profit colleges could graduate more than two-thirds of borrowing students and even then it takes six years for most. It gets worse. Among those students who borrowed and were able to graduate, just 63% earned $25,000 more than the average high school graduate within six years of earning their degree. Ouch! It should not be surprising that a fifth of students who had taken out loans were already behind on their repayment within three years of graduating. So much for the "engine of mobility."

Meanwhile, colleges hold all the cards: they have full access to students' families' financial information. They use this information to extract the most tuition from cherry-picked students. Instead of being an engine of socio-economic mobility, our higher education system is increasingly reinforcing the existing racial, economic, and wealth gaps.

We must wake up to the fact that it is our taxes that are the source of government subsidies that have caused this mess.

We have a right to demand more return on our investment. Colleges must begin to seriously invest in supportive services for students before they run into academic or financial trouble in school (many low-income students are forced to drop out of school for financial reasons). Colleges should also give back to the government the Pell grant amounts from students who didn't graduate.

Finally, colleges should be held to a higher level of transparency and accountability in informing prospective students about the true out-of-pocket costs of attendance (including fees and loans). How about forcing colleges to give a loan sheet which details interest and principal payments?

The welfare of our citizens and of our country depends on demanding more from colleges. They and not the government, nor students, are responsible for this mess.