WARREN, Mich. — Estranged from his family at age 17, Jake Boyd put himself through Macomb Community College in suburban Detroit by working nearly 100 hours a week: 12 hours a day, six days a week, at a car wash, followed by four-hour shifts as a security guard at an apartment complex.
It took Boyd almost five years to earn his associate degree in law enforcement from Macomb, the campus where President Barack Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative in 2009, setting a goal of restoring the country to first place by 2020 in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees.
Many students like Boyd just give up. Only one in five of those who enroll in community colleges — and, in some states, barely one in 10 — graduates in three years, while only about half of students who attend universities get their bachelor's degrees within six years, helping drag the United States from first to 10th in the world in the proportion of the population that has graduated from college.
It's a trend that Obama, in a speech on the Macomb campus, promised to reverse. Yet conversations with dozens of experts and reviews of available data show that obstacles on the road to graduation have gotten only greater in the two years since then. Few believe the 2020 target will be met.
"The outlook is not good," says Michael Lovenheim, an assistant professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and co-author of a 2010 study that found students are taking more, not less, time to graduate thanks to such things as continued deep cuts in public higher education budgets and services, enrollment increases and steep hikes in tuition that are forcing more students to work.
The study by Lovenheim and his colleagues upended the common contention by universities that graduation rates are falling because students are arriving unprepared. American high school graduates are, in fact, better prepared than ever, it found, but most go to unselective community colleges and public universities where budgets and services have been deeply cut, classes are large, and per-student expenditures are low.
Many of these students, like Boyd, have to work to pay quickly rising tuition costs, making it harder to get through school. Boyd sleeps three hours a night — four, if he's lucky.
"After five years, you get used to it," he says.
Lovenheim and his colleagues found that the longer it takes students to finish their degrees, the more likely they'll drop out.
That's one of several factors that have historically conspired to push down graduation rates — and that have gotten worse, not better, in the two years since the president announced his goal.
First, the $12 billion Obama initially promised to community colleges — a lynchpin of his strategy, which he called on to increase their number of graduates by 50 percent — was siphoned off to help get the contentious health care bill passed. As a compromise, $2 billion was pledged for career training through a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.
But it took until January of this year for the first $500 million to be made available — it won't actually be awarded to schools with winning career-training proposals until the end of September — and the rest is in the sights of congressional budget-cutters.
"The money didn't happen," says Jim Jacobs, who, as president of Macomb, welcomed Obama to the stage for his announcement on July 14, 2009. "He gave a great speech and the program has now been reduced from $12 billion to $2 billion in $500 million chunks."
Justin Hamilton, spokesman for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, says the administration is making progress toward the 2020 goal — every governor, for example, has been challenged to convene a college-completion summit — but he acknowledged, "We've got a tremendous amount of work ahead of us."
States have slashed billions of dollars from higher education, and $5.3 billion in federal stimulus funds they got to prevent even deeper cuts has, or will soon, run out.
The proportion of their budgets that states earmark for higher education fell from 11.4 percent when Obama called for higher graduation rates to 10 percent last year, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The American Association of Community Colleges has said that the president's 2020 graduation goal will not be reached unless resources are "significantly increased."
"There isn't enough support for higher education, and there aren't enough real resources for us to do the job" of raising graduation rates, says Jacobs. "There's no question about that."
State budget cuts have resulted in higher tuition and fees for students at a time when family income has remained relatively flat. In-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions nationwide rose 7.9 percent in 2010-11, according to the College Board — far above the inflation rate of 1.1 percent — to $7,605.
Community colleges increased their tuition 6 percent to $2,713, while at private, nonprofit four-year colleges and universities tuition went up by 4.5 percent, to $27,293.
States also have cut spending on the financial aid that many students need to pay these rising costs and stay in school. And, like that career-training money, federal Pell Grants have become a target of budget-cutters in Congress. The House of Representatives already has voted to reduce the maximum award available from the principal federal financial-aid program by 45 percent, to $3,040 a year.
One consequence of less financial aid is that nearly two-thirds of community college students now work at least 20 hours a week to pay for school, the New York City-based nonpartisan think tank Demos found — a factor linked to increased chances of dropping out.
"It's ironic that as soon as students take us up on the offer of aspiring to higher education, we tell them, 'Sorry, we've run out of money,'" says Jose Cruz, vice president of higher education practice and policy at Education Trust, a Washington education advocacy organization.
Key congressional Republicans, however, deride the president for putting so much attention on graduating more students at a time of relatively high unemployment.
"A college degree doesn't do any good if there aren't any jobs," says Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who chairs the House higher education subcommittee and who has questioned Obama's graduation goals.
Meanwhile, enrollment continues to grow, despite rising tuition, as students opt for college over trying their luck in the sagging labor market. The number of full-time students at cash-strapped community colleges is up more than 24 percent since 2007, the American Association of Community Colleges says.
"The wait-lists for classes are insane sometimes," says Samantha Raad, another student at Macomb, who already has worked three years toward a two-year degree in social work and who laughs when asked how much longer it will take.
Higher education officials acknowledge that Obama's graduation speech at least has focused attention on the obstacles to graduation. Governors and legislators in Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and other states have changed the way they dole out money to colleges and universities, funding them based not simply on how many students they enroll — the traditional practice — but on how many end up with degrees.
But with continued budget cuts, says Lovenheim, the Cornell assistant professor, the students who get through will be "that sort of heroic individual" like Jake Boyd, who's still working 16-hour days — and who has resisted the urge to quit on his goal of pursuing a bachelor's degree this fall and ultimately joining the Peace Corps — "if I can squeeze some more pennies together."
(This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.)
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