Reaching for the Green

Jane Rho/Guardian

Thanks to low college graduation rates, the Department of Education is dangling the prospect of additional funding in front of money-hungry campuses. It’s a smart move for the Obama administration, but not one we’re likely to cash in on, as the proposal has institutions directly competing to increase grad rates, which means struggling public schools are up against Ivy League cash cows.

Ideally, the initiative should make some adjustments to even the playing field for struggling schools — typically, public schools like those in the UC system. This can be done through tiered competitions, pitting schools from the same states and in similar financial situations against each other.

This program is a welcome change considering where the U.S. stands. Compared to other developed nations, the U.S. lags in our percentage of college graduates. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 42 percent of the U.S. population aged 25-34 has finished college. This puts us in ninth place (South Korea comes in at first with 58 percent).

The Department of Education is offering three separate grants. A $20-million “Comprehensive Grant Program” rewards universities that improve graduation rates, while a $50 million “College Completion Incentive Grants” rewards states. Finally, the $23-million “First in the World Initiative” rewards states that keep tuition rates from increasing while increasing completion rates. The plan, announced by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, seeks to increase college graduates in the United States by eight million by 2020.

While its intentions are good, the Comprehensive Grant Program disadvantages the UC system. Only individual colleges can apply for this grant, which means universities with huge budget deficits won’t likely be able to appropriate enough money to create a program to improve graduation rates as easily as more affluent colleges. In addition, it’s the most economically challenged schools are the public universities who are facing cuts, so private schools or for-profit colleges would tend to benefit from this grant.

Ironically, another reason the UC system may not be the strongest contender for these grants is because we’re doing well. The nine understand UC campuses already have a high graduation rate. As of 2010, 82.2 percent of UC students systemwide received their degree within six years; UCSD’s six-year graduation rate is 85 percent as of 2010. After crossing a certain threshold, it becomes increasingly difficult to raise graduation rates; because the UC system has less room for improvement than some other institutions, it’s less likely to gain from these grants. The reward system should instead take into account the varying tiers of improvement. Universities should not only compete against each other based on levels of debt, but on their rates of completion as well.

Also, it’s unclear if institutions that earn grants will be required to spend the money on increasing the graduation rates. If this is the case, although the UC system is strapped for cash, winning the grant may not be as helpful as it seems. The UC system needs to be free to use available funds to help alleviate course, faculty and enrollment cuts, not necessarily to produce more graduates.

Nonetheless, the White House is rightly concerned with educating the populace and creating a “College Completion Tool Kit” of sorts for schools and governors to increase graduation rates — helping adults with college experience but no degree, making transferring college credits easier and keeping college tuition raises minimal to nonexistent.

Biomedical careers and IT jobs generally require a college education, and to remain globally competitive, American citizens must have the education to succeed. But as the grants are designed now, public schools could well be hung out to dry.

Additional Reporting by Margaret Yau.

Readers can contact Saad Asad at [email protected]