Dr. Michael Crow, President of ASU, and Ernest Calderon, President of the Arizona Board of Regents, have a lot of fine ideas to bolster higher education in this great state. Affordability is the watch-word of the latest initiatives, and “Amen” to that broad concept. No one appears eager to see further increases in the cost of public education, at least no one wearing the “taxpayer” hat. But-you get what you pay for. That’s my mantra. What I want to “get,” at least as a taxpayer, is value – not merely the appearance of cheaper cost. Value in higher education, I am convinced, is measured by one data point more than any other. It’s called “persistence to graduation.” That’s an edu-word for the percentage of persons who graduate from a 4 year degree program within anything approaching a decent interval. Sometimes it’s referred to as a “graduation rate,” other times by other nomenclature, but the principle is this: Do those who embark on a higher education credential finish in a sufficiently reasonable period that one can say that the effort was justified in its cost?

For a while, perhaps as much as 20 years, it’s been conventional wisdom that the state universities are no longer places where the expression “4-year degree” has any literal meaning. It usually requires 5 years, minimum, to finish such a program of undergraduate studies, and there is a tendency for the undergrad to take as much as 6 academic years to finish all requirements for the degree of bachelor of something or other. This isn’t the forum to debate why that is so (or why, for that matter, graduation rates after 6 academic years of enrollment approach zero percent, although part of the problem is tracking the student’s progress beyond that time frame). That it is a fact, not just in Arizona but in many places, is evidenced by the metric for measuring undergraduate graduation rates: the percentage who graduate in 6 years. You can look that up on the U.S. News & World Report site and elsewhere. The National Center for Educational Statistics earlier this year made this observation: About 58 percent of first-time students seeking a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent and attending a 4-year institution full time in 2000-01 completed a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent at that institution within 6 years. For public institutions, approximately 58 percent of females seeking a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent graduated within 6 years, compared with 51 percent of their male counterparts; for private not-for-profit institutions, 67 percent of females graduated within 6 years, compared with 62 percent of males. At private, for-profit institutions, however, the 6-year graduation rate was higher for males than females (36 vs. 29 percent).

The elite (in their own minds) publics like Berkeley, Michigan (Ann Arbor), UCLA, North Carolina and Virginia have graduation rates over 6-year cohort intervals in the 80-90 percent range. Why is that? Are their students just better equipped for the intellectual challenges posed by higher education than the typical State U? Probably so; but that begs the question whether entry-test scores alone dictate the outcome of persistence to graduation. Of course, the ready answer is “no”; obviously, there’s more to succeeding in getting through a program than native intelligence. There is no measuring stick for sheer grit, for one thing. I’ve watched one of my kids grind half-way through a program that, on test paper, is probably beyond her grasp. We don’t live on paper, thankfully.

So, besides book-smarts and sheer determination, what else determines success in reaching the finish-line? There is plenty of research indicating that a major determinant of success in completing an undergraduate program is driven by engagement in the life of the academic institution, through faculty interactions and through student organizations – together with the quality of student life on the grounds of the institution itself. This militates against the commuter environment, where tires squeal after the last class bell of the day for the driver. The metric used in figuring out the degree of student engagement frequently is “freshman retention” – meaning, how many of the first-year class returns for more. Again, in the elite institutions, the freshman retention rate is in the mid-90s percentile. At the University of Arizona, it runs in the range of 77-78%. It’s about the same percentage at ASU. At NAU, it’s lower. Dr. Crow has admitted that freshmen living on a campus helps to “acculturate” those students to college life, positively impacting their “retention.” (Nov. 7, 2008 story) It’s useful to realize that while student housing represents some additional up-front cost to parents or students surviving on loans, the value proposition is that making new friends and feeling an integral part of the institution sustains velocity toward graduation. This means that the total cost of the student’s education beyond high school could be lower even if housing is a line item in the educational budget. So we need to offer nesting areas for fledglings in these new colleges, if we want to maximize their probability of staying the course.

What we further need, Arizonans, if we are going to justify the additional expense of new campuses with bachelor’s degrees emphases and less emphasis on faculty research, is student engagement and tightly-drawn articulation protocols, so that freshmen retention and graduation rates radically improve, at least to the 85% rate. That’s going to mean that a commuter campus ambience isn’t worth implementing – and that obligatory housing will increase the cost of construction and maintenance of these senior-college campuses, should they come to fruition. President Calderon’s Board of Regents wants to funnel more students through the new campuses using the engine of the community college systems for the initial two to three years of study – about half the period of the current bachelor’s program’s duration. But unless there are specific articulation agreements between the “junior” and “senior” institutions, that make it absolutely clear what course sequence is required to finish in 4 to 6 years with a bachelor’s degree, we’ll have more of the same foundering around that characterizes current public undergraduate programs, no matter how student-focused the faculty is at the new, smaller 4-year colleges. There’s no value proposition here. Arizona requires more college graduates and fewer academic dilettantes. Let’s calibrate the new colleges to make that happen.

Note: The author has three daughters who, among them, hold 5 degrees from institutions of higher learning, going on 6 – a doctorate-level program. His youngest daughter earned an associate of arts degree and a bachelor’s of science degree in 4 years; the trick is, she earned them from institutions 800 miles apart, through two distinct state university systems (neither of them in Arizona). That’s getting after it, friends.