Timely college completion

Why does it take some students a long time to graduate? In the United States, some people really want to know. Some people also believe that higher education institutions should be held accountable for slow graduation rates.

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed suggests that high-impact educational practices (HIPs) may be part of the problem. The article Maybe Not So ‘High Impact’?, describes the findings of a study by Harvard Business School and NYU that, according to the researchers, suggests HIPs are not as beneficial as their authors make them out to be and do not improve graduation rates. Let’s take a closer look at HIPs.

HIPs are recommendations from the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) to institutions designed to help in student learning, engagement, and retention. According to the AAC&U, each recommendation has been widely tested and is beneficial to college students.

Here is the complete list of High-Impact Educational Practices:

  1. First-year seminars and experiences – small groups of students and faculty where students experience critical inquiry, writing, collaborative learning, and other skills development
  2. Common intellectual experiences – broader themes related to “core” curriculum
  3. Learning communities – linked courses taken as a group with close interaction with the professors
  4. Writing-intensive courses
  5. Collaborative assignments and projects
  6. Undergraduate research
  7. Diversity/global learning – experimental learning in the community and/or study abroad
  8. Service learning, community-based learning – field based learning with community partners
  9. Internships
  10. Capstone courses and projects

Based on the list, it appears that HIPs are designed to develop students’ process skills (e.g. oral/written communication, teamwork, problem solving, etc.) and expose students to future careers in their field (e.g. internships, service learning). I experienced many of these recommendations in my undergraduate education.

For traditional students, only two items on the list stand out to me as having the potential to directly impact graduation time, No. 8 – diversity/global learning and No. 9 – internships. Obviously, study abroad could delay graduation, however these experiences are not typically included in graduation requirements. At my undergraduate institution, I was required to complete an internship, for credit, over the summer between my third year and fourth year. My internship experience was amazing but it was unpaid and it cost me over $3000 to take the three-credit “course”. For non-traditional students and students of low economic status, giving up a summer to complete an unpaid internship would be challenging. Needless to say, based on the HIPs recommendations, HIPs probably isn’t the reason why students take a long time to graduate.

Now let’s consider some other reasons for slow graduation rates.

  1. Student self-motivation – some students are lazy and don’t work hard in classes, don’t attend classes, or withdraw from several classes.
  2. Lack of engagement in the field of study – hopefully this isn’t the case but it could very well be for some students. Maybe the student is not really interested in the field but feels stuck because they’ve put 2+ years into it. Or, maybe they chose the field for the wrong reasons (e.g. money, etc.) and are not really engaged in the classes.
  3. No prospective job offers – would you want to graduate if you didn’t have a job lined up?
  4. Engagement in other areas within the field – students may be engaged in research, outreach, or other extracurricular activities that may distract them from graduating and postpone graduation.
  5. Family – now we’re getting to the obvious reasons but taking care of a family may take priority over classwork and may limit the number of credits a student can take in a semester.
  6. Money –some students can’t afford to go to school full-time because they need to work and make money.

I’m sure this list could go on but I’m going to stop there and end by saying that in opposition to what the Inside Higher Ed article suggests, HIPs do not appear to directly impact graduation time. Slow graduation rates are a problem, however there is not one cause and not one solution.

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