The American higher education system is plagued by two chronic problems: dropouts and debt. Barely half of the students who start college get a degree within six years, and graduation rates at less-selective colleges often hover at 25 percent or less. At the same time, student loan debt is at an all-time high, recently passing credit card debt in total volume. Loan default rates have risen sharply in recent years, consigning a growing number of students to years of financial misery. In combination, drop-outs and debt are a major threat to the nation’s ability to help students become productive, well-educated citizens.
The federal government has tracked these issues separately by calculating for each college the total number of degrees awarded, the percentage of students who graduate on time, and the percentage of students who default on their loans. While each of these statistics provides valuable information, none shows a complete picture.
In Debt to Degree: A New Way of Measuring College Success, Education Sector has created a new, comprehensive measure, the “borrowing-to-credential ratio.” For each college, authors Kevin Carey and Erin Dillon have taken newly available U.S. Department of Education data showing the total amount of money borrowed by undergraduates and divided that sum by the total number of degrees awarded. The results are revealing.