A series of studies by Third Way, an education-focused think tank, have shown that many colleges and universities are leaving students with only a 50 percent chance of graduating or of finding work that pays more than what someone with a high-school diploma can expect to earn.
As reported by The Washington Post, the findings lend weight to an increasing body of research that suggests that the crisis in education entails more than merely mounting problems with student debt.
The Third Way report calls for a greater focus on college completion rather than just on access to and affordability of higher education.
According to The Washington Post, the study also suggests that "completion, access and affordability go hand in hand," citing research that shows money is a primary factor in the reasons for students dropping out.
In the latest report, co-authors Erickson Hatalsky and Tamara Hiler studied the performances of students at 535 four-year public colleges using data from the Department of Education's College Scorecard.
The findings were striking, with just 48 percent of full-time students graduating within six years at the average public institution. Moreover, only 80 schools had graduation rates above 66 per cent.
These findings follow a US News report that school districts are not tracking college completion rates. According to US News' Lauren Camera, school districts across the US lack a nationwide data collection initiative, with some districts lagging behind in terms of obtaining completion data.
Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, co-author of the Third Way report and vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, expressed her feeling that many universities are not providing students enough value for what they pay:
"We think policymakers need to shift their conversation to focus not just on sticker price but on the value an institution is providing the students they are supposed to serve".
Meanwhile, the report notes that colleges, unlike high schools, are not held to any graduation standard that could lead to federal sanctions. High schools that have a graduation success rate below 67 percent are flagged for federal intervention. If this were the case for colleges, 85 percent of public colleges and 74 percent of private nonprofit schools would be flagged for intervention.
Among the bleak figures cited in the report is the fact that:
"At the average four-year public college, 22.2% of students who had taken out loans were unable to begin paying down their loans three years after leaving school."
To put this last figure in perspective, the report says, "during the height of the housing crisis in 2010, 90-day mortgage delinquencies peaked at around 10%."
The co-authors are quick to stress that the purpose of their paper was not to discourage potential students from attending college, as the economic benefits of earning a bachelor's degree remain clear. However, their intention was to "refocus the national conversation" on higher education onto wider ranging issues. The education system, the Third Way report suggests, is experiencing not only a debt crisis, but also a completion crisis.