Graduation rates: Look to your left. Now look to your right. Now look in two other random directions.

I feel I should start this post by saying I’m not advocating a return to the old way of doing things. The purpose of this post is just to note a change and ponder a bit what the change means.

An article last week talked about Georgia Tech’s moves to make student retention and graduation among its top priorities. The goal is to keep and graduate more students. That’s a good thing, right?

Many years ago, it wouldn’t have been considered a good thing. Georgia Tech used to be famous in part for its “look to your left” speech at convocation. In Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, Friedman includes an excerpt from former Georgia Tech President G. Wayne Clough. Clough recalls, “When I came to Tech as an awestruck freshman back in the sixties, they had this drill for the incoming students. They would tell us: ‘Look to your left. Look to your right. Only one of you will graduate.'”

Back then, a low graduation rate was a point of pride. And in some ways, doesn’t that make sense? If fewer people are able to accomplish something, doesn’t that mean the task is harder? And if the task is harder, doesn’t that make it more of an accomplishment if you do succeed at it? To take an analogy, isn’t completing a marathon more prestigious than completing a 5K because fewer people can do it, because it’s more challenging?

We’ve gone from bragging about our low graduation rate to treating it as a problem to be repaired. What happened? Perhaps we started caring about our students more. Perhaps we recognized that it was the wrong 33% of students graduating, that the reasons students were failing out weren’t correlated with long-term success. Perhaps we recognized that when students leave, they take their tuition checks with them.

Today, Georgia Tech graduates 82% of its students within six years of matriculation. Today, the speech would read, “Look to your left. Now look to your right. Now look at two other random people in the audience. Four of the five of you will graduate within six years.” Which begs the question: is a Georgia Tech diploma as prestigious today as it was fifty years ago? If 80% of students that attempt one can complete it, is it easier than if only 33% of students can complete it? If the ranks of marathon runners expanded 250%, would we not regard the accomplishment as less prestigious than previously?

Grade inflation would lead to higher graduation rates. Easier classes would lead to higher graduation rates. There are many ways we can increase graduation rates at the expense of the education. Just as we could increase the ranks of marathon runners by shortening the length we call a ‘marathon’, we also can increase our graduation rate simply by decreasing the challenge. There are lots of ways to increase graduation rates without negatively impacting the education, though. We can get better at choosing students who are likely to succeed in the first place. We can provide better structures and support environments to maximize the likelihood of student success. We can improve the quality of the instruction to ensure students learn more. We can only admit the best runners, we can make sure the route is fair and the weather is good, and we can provide good hydration along the course to maximize our marathon runners’ chances at success.

But at a certain level, don’t we want to know which students could succeed without that support? College serves many functions: one is to teach a body of knowledge in a certain field, and toward that end, improving the instruction and environment is a highly desirable move because it increases the number of students that attain that body of knowledge. But college is also a test: it examines whether one can succeed at a rigorous course of study. By improving the instruction, do we not inherently lower the rigor? Do we not want to know which students would have succeeded under more rigorous conditions? Aren’t we curious which of those marathon runners could have also completed the race on a hilly course on a rainy day without food or water?

I don’t have an answer here. This comes down, in part, to the function of college: is it to obtain a corpus of knowledge, or is it to prove a level of ability? Who even gets to decide the function? I would speculate universities would favor the former function, but for the vast majority of students, the reason for earning the diploma is to get a job, and those jobs often involve few of the skills learned in the classroom. A Georgia Tech diploma, in my experience, is less an indicator of what you know and more an indicator of what you can do, which would tend to lean toward the latter. If we can design college programs that are more closely tied to the requirements of the job market, we may be able to move toward the former function of higher education, but I don’t believe higher education is interested in reinventing itself as job training — even though that may be one of the major functions it plays in present society.

There are many complicated relationships at play here, but I can’t get over a simple interesting fact: in a span of only a few decades, Georgia Tech went from bragging about its low graduation rate to bragging about its high graduation rate. That’s a fascinating about-face. For my part, I agree with the new focus: we should do everything in our power to equip our students to succeed, as well as to ensure we’re only giving the opportunity to the students who have the potential to succeed in the first place. But I can’t deny that as an undergraduate at Tech, I took great pride at succeeding at a school where success wasn’t guaranteed.

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