What drives Graduation rate and Educational Attainment gap between Colleges and among groups of Students?

Adveline Minja
12 min readJun 18, 2018


Every Fall over three million students graduate high school and embark on to colleges and universities across the nation and some around the globe as international students to start their postsecondary education. “Obtaining higher education can be an important step towards better occupational and economic outcomes. Lower levels of educational attainment are associated with higher unemployment rates (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cbc.asp) and lower earnings (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cba.asp). Although an increasing number of students have enrolled in postsecondary institutions (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cha.asp) over the last several decades, there are still differences in the characteristics of students who complete various levels of postsecondary education.” National Center for Education Blog (http://nces.ed.gov/blogs/nces/).

It is well noted that America has long championed for education, but in recent decades the signs and the evidence of the decline of education rank as a nation and the educational attainment between colleges and among groups of students in America are not only noticeable but also raises significant concerns.

Looking back in history, in the 19th Century, America was a leader in requiring young people to attend primary school and later high school. The ranks of high school graduates attending college also grew steadily but slowly.

Although no other country’s universities educated even half as large as a proportion of its young people as America, only 1 in 7 young America went to college by late 1940. After World War II there was a rapid increase in college entre. The share of high school graduates entering college grew steadily from 17% in 1950 to 39% in 1980, 55% in 2000 and 68% in 2011, making America the first nation to make the transition from elite to mass and then to universal higher education. (Derek Bok, Higher Education in America, pp 81).

The author of the book, Higher Education in America, also stated that, in the past 30 years, earnings premium for completing college has tremendously increased. By 2010, the average annual income for adults holding college education degree reached $54,000 compared with $32,000 for those with only a high school diploma. In 2005, 87% of America adults agree that a college education has become an important as a high school diploma used to be, while the percentage of respondents in Public Agenda Surveys who considered a college education to be “necessary for a person to be successful in today’s work world” jumped from 31% in 2000 to 55% in 2009”. Also, the share of ninth and tenth graders are expressing their interest in going to college increased to 80%.

Despite these high educational aspirations, the author also noted that college enrollment figures and graduation rates show clearly how far young people are from fulfilling their ambitions. According to the Department of Education, of every 100 students who begin ninth grade, only 75 graduated from high school, only 51 enter college, and only 29 graduates. (Derek Bok, Higher Education in America-pp 82).

On the other hand, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that more than 60% of all new jobs created by 2018 will require at least some college education. Director of Center on Education and Workforce at Georgetown University, Professor A. Carnevale even declared that America would experience a skills shortage of three million jobs by 2018 if the number of college graduates does not grow faster.

Reports of a severe shortage of highly skilled employees have continued to appear since the recession that followed the financial crisis of 2008. For example, in 2014 according to the Roundtable’s “action plan,” the Business Roundtable projected shortages of college-educated workers even higher than those anticipated by Professor Carnevale. (Derek Bok, The Struggle to Reform Our Colleges, pp.8–9).

Also, research on college completion also exposed the large and growing income and racial gaps in the rates at which students were graduating from college. Among high school graduates academically qualified for college study, far more students from high-income families completed a bachelor’s degree within eight years than did those from low-income families. This vast and growing difference was accompanied by rising income inequality, which now is a big debate in the 21st-century economy. Why a four-year college degree should take eight years is a question that the answers may amaze you! However, this is a topic of discussion by itself!

Due to this widening trend in disparities in the education system and the workforce, President Barak Obama declared to the Congress in 2009 that America must regain its historic leadership in the educational attainment of its people. So, he stated that America should increase its 40% of existing college-educated people by raising the share of 25–34-year-olds earning a “quality” college credential to 60% by 2020. This goal, however, will not be attained if the current trend that drives low graduation rate and educational attainment is not addressed seriously and contained.

So, why despite these disturbing and alarming findings the number of students graduating colleges continues to scale down? What is the problem that hinders students’ progress whether to enter college or to earn a college degree? What drives Graduation rate and Educational Attainment gap between Colleges and among groups of Students?

When carefully looked at the forces that drive graduation rate and educational achievement among colleges and groups for students three trends stand out to be the cause that stands on the way and disrupt students from achieving their educational goals and ambitions. The three educational patterns are:

Equity in education

Professional Development and

Use of Technology in Education.

Many authors who have written extensively about educational achievement gaps have all pointed fingers on the education systems that the problem lies not with particular group of students because of their ethnicity and or socio-economic status but instead on America’s education system that among other things have failed to address the “real-root cause” of the problem which is:

Equity in Education-Every child is capable of learning and achieving success if afforded the learning environment that supports his or her needs. Many capable students from families of limited income have been sidelined by the system and left alone in despair with limited skill and experience to earn an income to support themselves and educate themselves (if at all they are lucky enough to get a stable job). What is the financial opportunity this group has that education system can offer? As it currently is, this group of students is more likely to suffer the educational attainment and graduation gap because of their socioeconomic status-and this including other factors such as ethnic origin or gender which should not be an obstacle to achieving educational potential to any aspiring academic student.

Equity in education means fairness and equal treatment of “all children” regardless of their gender, socio-economic status or ethnic background for them to achieve educational potential. It also means inclusion-thus, accessibility, and accommodation of all students. That education resources be shared and distributed according to the needs of each young student. Individualize learning in the 21st century can be a game changer for our academically aspiring students for it addresses and assures their rights for education. From K-12 schools Choice Programs for all students so that to contain the risks to equity; to upper secondary education by providing options-attractive alternatives, remove red- tapes and dead ends and prevent drop-outs due to educational malpractice!

When a higher education institution forces an aspiring academic student to drop out of college instead of supporting the student in finding means to help the student to continue with the higher learning, it is not only wrong because it denies the student his/her right to education but also, it is purely an educational malpractice in the education systems!

The crisis of college affordability must be dealt with. Not only that some students have outstanding loan debt before they even earn a degree and get a job to pay that loan, but others they do not have access to student loans at all making them earn a college degree an unachievable dream.

College affordability crisis in 2012–2013 caught president Obamas attention, and on fall of 2013 he toured the State University of New York at Buffalo and said,

“At this time when a higher education has never been more important or more expensive, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have made: Either they say no to college…or you do what it takes to go to college, but then you run the risk that you won’t be able to pay it off because you have got so much debt. Now, that is the choice we should not accept. And, by the way, that is a choice that the previous generation did not have to accept.” (Ryan Craig, College Disrupted pp 18).

In his book, College Disrupted, the author also pointed out that many Americans now say higher education fails to provide students with good value and 98% America adults agree with the statement that “higher education is in crisis.” I completely agree with the author too, for I am living it as I write this article, and I have many unanswered questions because I could not navigate the educations systems to get straight and honest answers.

Moreover, as the author did, I am amplifying some of those questions: What is the university’s responsibility to its students after they have accepted them to join their colleges? Do the universities have the role or the education systems for that matter can force the student to drop out of college out of their will? What is the goals and objectives of education if there is any in this situation? Where is its responsibility to America and its students? Isn’t college designed to enhance a student’s future well-being and, in turn, that of society in general? How did it get corrupted to the point where higher education is the cause, rather than the solution, to so many of our collective ills?

As a matter of respect, the education systems and the higher education institutions ought to have a higher level of responsibility to their students and the families who have toiled in raising their children to the level of qualifying them for entry to college, only to be failed by the systems when they get there! The systems that were supposed to be helping and serving them all and equally to attain their educational endeavor.

Some of the higher education institutions could care less about students’ retention and graduation rate as they care about their bottom-line, and we should all be wary about those institutions that are for profits more than ensuring that students have the resources they need and deserve to help them learn effectively.

In the end, however, the fight for college is the fight for the rights to education that the sons or a daughters of a taxpayer they too have the right to education. The use and the distribution of the taxpayer’s money should reach and serve each child; and perhaps for those higher institutions that are producing high numbers student dropouts, it's time to investigate them thoroughly and demand accurate report on what is going on! On the other hand, incentivizing (financial premiums) the institutions that are attracting diverse and disadvantaged students and retain them for graduation.

Also, an investment in training ensures that the education system is designed to serve all students not some, a system that motivates learning not demoralize learning. An aspiring academic student should not be forced to withdraw from college because he or she could not afford or because of his or her parents’ migration status. Minorities and migrants’ students face challenges to navigate the system even when they are American Citizens they face unique difficulties, and the educations systems need to respond and react to their needs just as they do to the other groups.

Cultural bias should have no place in the education system-serve all and educate all children fairly and equally, for it is their right.!

Professional Development-Not only that professional development impact learning and teaching but also it is a tool for educational achievement. Educators must embed 21st-century knowledge and skills that demands and measures success in both the students and the educator. Educators also need to stay on top of the latest technology, and the most innovative systems and strategies for learning and teaching, for even the technology itself, is driven and controlled by human minds. For example, there are signs and evidence of discrepancies in tracking students’ progress-early tracking and streaming need to be justified regarding proven benefits, thus, tracking at later stage vs. early stage to prevent inequities and improve outcome. Doing so needs professional skills and knowledgeable personnel. If educators do not have the 21st-century knowledge base and skills they need, how could they teach the 21st-century skills?

Fewer resources for educators is a recipe for failure. Critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration; classroom leadership and management and interdisciplinary instructions are the knowledge and skills that every educator need to know and possess; for it will pave the way in straighten and strengthen the links between schools and families in helping the most disadvantaged parents and their children in their learning journey. Such knowledge also helps educators to respond more professionally or effectively to diversity and provide successful inclusion of migrants and minorities students in the education system.

Socio-cultural competence is a learned skill. Teaching standards and teachers quality (knowledge/skills) help students learning and produce high performance. Teaching strategies, reaching out strategy and students retentions lead to schools and students’ success. The student learns more from competent teachers. Schools should have the resources to keep great teachers on the job by providing them the training they need and the flexibility to teach with technology, creativity, and motivation.

“Providing all children in America with the opportunity for world-class education is critical for their success, and the success of our nation and every child deserve a great teacher.” ~ (U.S. Department of Education, www.ed.org/teacherprep).

Better use of Technology in Education-Technology and its innovative systems within education industry is increasingly becoming a cornerstone in addressing all kinds of students’ learning and outcomes, as it is for educators in teaching in all levels of education from elementary schools to colleges. However, technology by itself is designed and controlled by the people-human mind and therefore likely to be susceptible to some discrepancies in tracking student’s progress and addressing the needs of those students accordingly and or on a timely manner. Technology should be used to reveal many things about students’ performances: from academic records to attendance records. However, if the tracking and the data entry is incorrect, and the end-results are what determines the students’ performance status, this also may not address and or reflect the accurate records of students’ performances hence deprive the students, among other things resources for the students with the most significant needs.

We all want technology to accurately assist in identifying and setting targets for more equity so that we can track schools/colleges with low graduating rate and educational attainment to address the drop-outs before it happens. Human power (knowledgeable and skilled) and technology will eventually be the only source and force that will eliminate the continuing growth of educational achievement gaps in schools and among students’ groups. The education systems need to provide a strong education for all because the 21st-century economy demands their knowledge and skills. Moreover, through technology schools and teachers’ roles are shifting from owners of information to the facilitators and guides to learning and achievement.

Equity for all students is undeniably essential opportunity that all students should have access and benefit. Giving all students a chance to thrive regardless of their socio-economic status and race identity is imperative and inevitable if the mission to promote student achievement and prepare them for global competitiveness is to be achieved. As it is now, more often, minority students (Blacks and Hispanics) are the disadvantaged groups and therefore susceptible to discrimination that leads to the inability to graduate in high school and may not be ready for college or paid jobs.

Consequently, those who persisted and graduate either high school (even with high achievement score) still face obstacles and discrimination to stay in college as they are more likely to be denied student loans that will keep them in college, of which is due to inability to ensure equal access to educational equity.

It is perceived that education plays a crucial role in determining how you spend your adult life-a higher level of education means higher earnings, better health, and longer life. However, for most people, this is still a myth, not a fact until we can be fair and equal in the treatment of one another in all areas of our lives, education for all leading the way!

Therefore, to develop a healthy society, we must first build and improve the learning capacity of young children as the next generation of smart and intelligent people who are fully aware of their place in the society and the environment they live. Moreover, also, how best they can manage and govern it to create friendlier-healthier-society that celebrate their learning efforts and achievements. Empowering young children through education is a no-brainer priority, for empowering our youth through education is giving them a key to unlock many doors of opportunities. Former President of South Africa and the most influential political activist and global icon of our time, Mr. Nelson Mandela, said:

“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.”

Through education, you can eliminate gender inequality, decrease poverty, and increase prosperity. It is through providing education to all children that a child of a farmer can learn and become a doctor, a girl from the rural area can have a chance to become UN Ambassador or a CEO of a multilateral company, or a boy from a single-parent family can rise to become a president of a country.



· Bok, Derek. Higher Education in America. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2013.

· Bok, Derek. The Struggle to Reform Our College. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2017.

·Craig, Ryan. College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education. Palgrave MacMillan, United State, 2015.


· “NCES-National Center for Education Statistics Blog.” (http://nces.ed.gov/blogs/nces/).

· “OECD 2008 Observer-Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Policy Brief”.

Ten Steps to Equity in Education


· “America Institutes for Research Center”- How Career and Technical Education Can Help Students Be College and Career Ready: A Primer (https://ccrscenter.org/products-resources/how-career-and-technical-education-can-help-students-be-college-and-career-ready).



Adveline Minja

I am an educator. I am a woman. I am a parent. I am passionate about teaching and learning things that made us whole and great!