Updated: July 30, 2014 6:33AM
Take out your No. 2 pencil. This is a multiple-choice test.
The answers are A) Wobbly; B) Coyote ugly; C) Inefficient; or D) All of the above, depending on your tolerance.
The answer is D, and the question is: How bad are graduation rates for Indiana’s public universities?
There’s an obvious ancillary question, too. Why should you care that the nine Indiana and Purdue branch campuses can’t graduate more than 27 percent of their full-time students? As a state taxpayer, you spend $1.2 billion a year on Indiana public colleges, that’s why.
American taxpayers spend $10 billion on freshmen who don’t become sophomores. That’s money to NOT produce college graduates.
What you are buying apparently is the cheery, life-enhancing experience of campus life, not so much career-prepared, life-ready, educated adults.
And that, says the nation’s pre-eminent statistical analyst on higher education, is a “tragedy.”
“Yes, a tragedy,” says Mark Schneider, the president and senior fellow at the American Institute for Research and former federal commissioner of higher education. “It not only wastes money, it wastes time. It wastes lives. It’s a tragedy for students, parents and taxpayers. Even with Pell grants and direct subsidies from states, students will borrow out of their own pocket, take out a credit card; the parents will borrow or use a credit card. Then the student fails and comes home defeated. Sometimes the students never make up that money.”
Life pays off for degrees. If you spend $70,000, you will get back an average of $300,000 after taxes, expenses and time. Academics have sold that happy economic equation for a century.
It’s the Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to a good life.
True, the “flagship” campuses in Bloomington (71 percent graduate on time) and Lafayette (70 percent) are doing swell, but that should tell you how poorly the rest of the state’s public schools are doing.
The 10 data aggregate sources, particularly CollegeMeasures.org, which Schneider leads, all show much the same results.
Indiana University Northwest struggles to graduate 21 percent of its students within six years — the nation’s “new normal” — and only 1.3 percent of black students. Graduation of black students has fallen 88 percent over the past five years to the bottom 6 percent of all colleges.
It gets worse. Purdue North Central in Westville graduates 4 percent of its students in four years and 14 percent in six years. The Fiscal Times rates Purdue North Central as the nation’s eighth worst state university for graduating students. Purdue Calumet in Hammond is 25 percent.
Every independent comparison of Indiana’s public universities puts them at south end of a northbound mule. Indiana ranks 32nd in public college grads (48.9 percent), just behind Mississippi. California graduates 65 percent.
Ask yourself, can a state school system that graduates less than half its students be judged successful?
Schneider says university leaders have two answers to this criticism. “First, they will say it’s not their fault. We’re really sorry. But it’s not us. We get unprepared, bad students. It’s the K-12 system. It goes all the way back to childhood development.”
“Second, they will argue you are using the wrong statistics. Federal stats measure first-time full-time students. So they don’t count part-timers or those who come back to a university after being somewhere else. Of course, if you counted all those students, the rate would be even lower.”
But using the same statistics, not every state wobbles, even those that let most applicants have a seat.
Wisconsin, which has 14 state universities of which 12 are regional outposts that resemble Indiana’s system, graduates at 60.4 percent.
Some states — Tennessee is an example — base state funding only on university performance, not how many students are enrolled. Indiana is dabbling with the idea.
As for the larger issue of cost, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes it still takes $76,810 to get each student to graduation. “There is no free college,” Schneider says. “Someone always pays.”
But graduating is a self-interested investment, and the stakes are profoundly complex. The nation’s vitality rests on intellectual horsepower. Sure, Harvard, MIT and Stanford are shiny objects that make us proud, but while we stayed still on graduation rates and let costs spiral, the world has not.
Inside the data, there is a sharp warning. Without policies to reduce the cost and boost graduation, we could fall below the industrialized world’s graduation average within the decade.
By dismissing that challenge, we will have chosen to become mediocre.
Contact David Rutter at