The current national rhetoric regarding higher education suggests an insufficient number of the U.S. population complete degrees at rates that meet our future labor market needs. It is often framed as a degree completion “crisis,” whereby hoards of students pack into campus environments, absorbing every penny of the $177 billion investment in federal financial aid programs only to toil around in obscurity for the next half-a-decade or more. The rhetoric offers pronouncements of potential decreases in global competition, decreases in civil and democratic engagement, and creates fear among the public of an ever-decreasing return on the nation’s investment in postsecondary education. One result of this public discussion is a dizzying number of policy briefs and research reports reflecting efforts to address the aforementioned conditions.
Dovetailing these sentiments, policymakers often evoke the narrative of a supposed “fall from grace”, maintaining that the enterprise of American higher education has fallen on hard times. To be sure, stagnant social mobility and deep demographic change signals a necessary focus on refining institutional systems, resources, and practices to support completion. Yet, the supposition that somehow institutional and programmatic productivity has deteriorated misappropriates the historical context of college degree completion at four-year institutions. Further, it misinforms policymakers and the public about historical trends in college graduation rates.
The purpose of this piece is to bring to the forefront a historical analysis of the evolution of student persistence and degree completion. Doing so, we assert, fills a notable information gap in our public conversations around college degree completion.
One aspect supporting claims of the dismal state of colleges today is the language focused on the number of students who complete college “on-time.” The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) National Center for Education Sciences (NCES) calculates graduation rates to meet requirements of the 1990 Student Right to Know Act which directed postsecondary institutions to report the percentage of students that complete their program within 150 percent of the normal time for completion; for example, 4-year colleges must report 6-year graduation rates. In addition, through the Higher Education Opportunity Act’s program integrity regulations, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) requires institutions to disclose an on-time completion rate for gainful employment programs.
To better understand the concept of “on-time” completion as it has been defined over the past two decades, we take a historical look at students’ four-year outcomes at a public 4-year institution. For the purposes of this exercise, we turn to the year 1950; after the influx of students via the Servicemen’s Readjustments Act of 1944 (otherwise known as the GI Bill) as well as before the expansion of the public community college and state higher education systems that afforded access to previously disenfranchised populations (e.g., women, students of color, and those from low-income communities). The year 1950 is also helpful as a frame of reference for data collection on education attainment done by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Policymakers who romanticize the college-going experience back in 1950 – believing that typical campus setting comprised a majority of first-time, full-time students who graduated “on-time” (meaning, within four years of their enrollment date) – may be surprised by the results of a study published by the U.S. Office of Education in 1958 based on institutional records and student responses. Specifically, the on-time graduation rate for first-time, full-time students starting in college at a 4-year institution was 40%. This is to say, the notion that once upon a time everyone went to college and graduated on-time is nothing more than a baseless myth.
Figure 1 illustrates the differences in student outcomes at public 4-year institutions for two cohorts of students: one cohort starting in the fall of 1950 and the other starting in the fall of 2006. We see that in 1950 students exhibited polarized behaviors: they either completed or stopped-out, with a greater percentage dropping out. In the 2006 cohort, there are three patterns of behavior: some students graduate; others are still enrolled but do not have a degree (which we assume means that students are staying engaged, persisting to some extent); and another group of students drop out. Moreover, the stop-out rate for the 2006 cohort is half that of the 1950 cohort.
Figure 1. 4-year Student Outcomes for Cohorts of Students Starting at Public 4-year Institutions in 1950 and 2006
Source: Adapted by Chris M. Mullin from Table 9 in IIffert (1958, p.18); Unpublished data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
Notes: Percentages exceed 100 because some students fall in more than one category. For example a student may have transferred and later returned with a loss of standing so that he would be counted in the "transfer" group as well as the "still attending" group. The excess is some indication of student mobility within the four types of institutions [the original table has data for different types of 4-year institutions].The total transfers also exceed the number of students transferring to smaller and larger institutions.
Authors’ notes: Data for "No longer enrolled" and "Unknown" were collapsed to align with data for 2006 cohort.
Institutional Adaptability to Changing Student Demographics
Taken together, the data presented in these two trends offer a counter-narrative to the notion that the American higher education system has somehow fallen from grace. We opine that the public should know more about these trends, as they would find it useful in understanding the historical patterns of college completion, as opposed to relying on the current dialogue.
Federal and state policymakers advancing public policy decisions that reflect a “traditional” frame of reference expect all students to behave in ways few actually do, or have done, since the federal government started tracking college completion.
Many “traditional aged students” enter 4-year institutions with a four-year plan according to the University of California, Los Angeles’ Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s annual Freshman Survey. However, many change or add majors, withdraw and retake classes, take time off to work, help family, or withdraw for other personal reasons, all of which can quickly extend plans to five or six years, or even more. Two-thirds of students who did not complete their four-year degree program reported the need to support their family as a reason for their attrition; 57 percent preferred to work and make money and 48 percent could no longer afford college.
Acknowledging Progress and Striving Forward: The Important Role of Student Affairs in the Evolution of Student Persistence
Given the surge in educational attainment depicted in the recent work of the Pew Research Center, it appears that colleges and universities in the U.S. have been doing a better job over time in helping students attain additional levels of education.  Critical to this movement, the role of student affairs practitioners has evolved into one that focuses on ensuring that students not only enjoy and make meaning of their college experience, but also successfully graduate. Many student affairs practitioners have put forth much effort and resources to develop effective approaches, strategies, and programs to increase college retention and success.
This effort has been critical in turning drop-outs into persisters, and persisters into completers, even if it takes longer than four years. Student affairs professionals are acutely aware of students’ time in all its forms. They are taking actions to assist students in better time utilization; facilitate accelerated learning sequences; develop student success plans to encourage the most direct path to a degree or credential or outcome; and offer co-curricular experiences at all times of the day in various type of formats.
In order to elevate our productivity, higher education as a system needs to adapt to meet the needs of a broader swath of student. The paradigm has shifted and the focus of our attention should be on ensuring that they achieve what they came to our institutions for, acknowledging the material conditions under which they make choices about and experience their college enrollment.
For all the degree attainment rhetoric that informs institutional decision making, the completion agenda should be informed by an accurate depiction of historical trends. In this piece, we have examined the myth of “on-time” completion and some of its inherent tensions in an effort to ensure that resulting actions have the impact we all desire: improved outcomes for the largest number of students and communities.
 The federal government funds higher education primarily through student-based financial aid comprising grant programs, tax benefits, student loans and work-study. For detailed definitions and allocation amounts, see New America’s Federal Education Budget Project at: http://febp.newamerica.net/background-analysis/federal-higher-education-programs-overview.
 Also known as the “Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act” which passed by Congress on November 9, 1990, requires institutions eligible for Title IV funding to calculate completion or graduation rates of certificate- or degree-seeking, full-time students entering that institution, and to disclose these rates to all students and prospective students. For more information, see: http://nces.ed.gov/Ipeds/glossary/index.asp?id=625.
 For more information about ED’s Gainful Employment provisions, see: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/highered/reg/hearulemaking/2012/gainfulemployment.html
 Educational attainment refers to the highest level of education that an individual has completed. This is distinct from 1) The level of schooling that an individual is attending; and 2) The rate at which students graduate from an institution as measured by institutions and collected by the Institutional Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). For more information and data reporting, see: http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/.
 Iffert, R. E. (1958). Retention and Withdrawal of College Students. Office of Education, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Bulletin, 1958, No. 1.
 The UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s Freshman Survey collects extensive information that allows for a snapshot of incoming students, surveying students on a wide range of characteristics such as values, attitudes, beliefs and educational and career plans. For more information, see: http://www.heri.ucla.edu/cirpoverview.php
 Taylor, P., Parker, K., Fry, R., Cohn, D., Wang, W., Velasco, G., & Dockterman, D. (2011, May 16). Is college worth it? College presidents, public assess value, quality, and mission of higher education. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, Social & Demographic Trends.
 See Fry, R. (February, 2014): http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/28/for-millennials-a-bachelors-degree-continues-to-pay-off-but-a-masters-earns-even-more/
*Christopher M. Mullin, Ph.D., serves on the advisory committee of NASPA’s Research and Policy Institute. Dr. Mullin’s contribution to this work occurred while he was still employed by the American Association of Community Colleges. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Florida Board of Governors