College quality not reflected in graduation rate

By Editorial Board

This month, Columbia placed 10th on CBSNews.com’s list of private colleges with the worst graduation rates, with a rate of 40.5 percent. This seems alarming until it is put into context.

Most private colleges with high graduation rates, like Harvard University with 97.4 percent, have very low acceptance rates—5.9 percent in Harvard’s case. Columbia’s generous admissions policy and 80 percent acceptance rate could be the main cause of its low graduation rate, not academic apathy.

Because Columbia’s focus is arts and media, it is expected that some students will leave before earning a degree, as they often decide a career in the arts is not the direction they want to take. Students at DePaul University can change their major from film to physics without transferring colleges. Columbia, on the other hand, is a specialized institution that may not be a good fit for every student, which makes it difficult to measure the college’s quality based on how many students complete their degrees.

Many students also drop out for financial reasons. This fall semester, 255 returning sophomores were unable to register for classes because of a financial hold, as reported by The Chronicle Sept. 17. Perhaps the college needs to assist these students more because this is not a case of academic failure.

Graduation rates are misleading when a college’s acceptance rate isn’t taken into account. All 25 colleges on the list of highest graduation rates have acceptance rates of less than 35 percent, and many of them accept fewer than 10 percent of applicants. The majority of the private colleges with  low graduation rates accept more than half of applicants.

Colleges that give students a chance often end up with a low graduation rate, but this is a matter of philosophy, not quality. Columbia caters to students who might not be able to get into an Ivy League school but still have promise. Betting on potential doesn’t always produce results, but Columbia provides an opportunity for students who are capable of succeeding.

The data on graduate rates only applies to full-time, non-transfer students. According to 2010 enrollment data, 10 percent of Columbia students are part time, meaning they were not included in the data used to compile the list.

Although Columbia’s graduation rate is lower than many of the private nonprofit colleges, the list excluded for-profit colleges, many of which have graduation rates much lower than Columbia’s. The University of Phoenix, the largest and most well known for-profit college, has a six-year graduation rate of 9 percent, according to a 2010 report by the Education Trust. The graduation rates of public colleges are even lower than the private colleges on the list. All 25 public colleges listed with the worst graduation rates have rates below 30 percent.

Columbia is not Harvard, but it’s also not the University of Phoenix. The college’s graduation rate, which is not as alarmingly low as the list implies, means very little considering it is Columbia’s mission to “extend educational opportunity by admitting unreservedly (at the undergraduate level) a student population with creative ability,” according to the college’s website. Of course Columbia should do its best to help students attain a degree, but our college’s quality should not be measured by how many students struggle in its specialized departments.

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