Poll: Public blames grad rates on college students

“Those supporting the completion agenda need to push back — hard — and emphasize the role colleges play in supporting or undermining student success,” she said.

After long emphasizing access to college, higher education policy debates have shifted only recently to focusing on getting students through.

The Obama administration has called for the United States to again lead the world in number of college graduates by 2020.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation and others have directed money and attention to states and colleges to improve completion rates, and several states are taking action.

Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, which championed such efforts, disagreed that the poll spells trouble for reform.

“This will play out like the high school dropout issue,” he said. “The more it becomes a subject of public discussion the more advances we will make on confronting the college dropout problem.”

Just over half of first-time students who entered college in 2003-04 had not earned a degree or credential within six years, the Education Department reported recently. That’s slightly worse than students who started in 1995-96.

Experts caution it is tricky to measure success and compare graduation rates because today’s older, less-traditional college student population takes more time to finish school and is harder to track.

The AP-Stanford poll found most people were happy with the quality of higher education in their states.

Despite severe budget cuts and spiraling tuition at many public four-year colleges, those schools received the highest marks: Seventy-four percent in the poll called them excellent or good.

But others institutions got strong marks, too: Four-year private nonprofit colleges (71 percent), two-year public colleges (69 percent), private for-profit colleges (66 percent) and private for-profit trade schools (57 percent).

That’s a rare glimpse at public opinion about for-profit colleges, which have been fighting proposed regulations that would that would cut off federal aid.

The poll also found overwhelming agreement that there is a link between the nation’s prosperity and the quality of its education system.

Overall, 88 percent say economic prosperity and quality education are closely entwined, a 12-percentage-point increase over a similar poll two years ago. Nearly 80 percent said that having all Americans graduate from a two- or four-year college would help the economy.

Yet most in the poll are unwilling to invest more in the nation’s school systems in order to obtain that economic payoff — just 42 percent favor raising taxes to pay for better education.

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