Is Our Drive Towards Graduating in Four Years Worth It?

by Jacob Kolander│ Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

Graduation rates are once again in the news as New Mexico continues to sit at the bottom of the list of states based on four-year graduation rates.

In 2015, we made news as having the worst four-year graduation rate in the country, and in 2016 we only made slight gains. This push for a four-year graduation rate has several unintended consequences we must consider.

The first is that many of our students take longer than four years to graduate. The rub? This does not impact their rate of college acceptance. The UNM Admissions Office indicated to me that, when looking at applications for undergraduates, they don’t take graduation time into account.

What really matters for students is GPA, ACT/SAT scores, and demonstration of proficiency as indicated by PARCC and other assessments. Many more universities feel the same way, which begs the question: where does the pressure to graduate in four years come from?

The importance of students graduating on time is up for debate, but what is more significant is the skill set with which they graduate.


New Mexico's 2017 Four-Year Graduation Rates


According to this AP report by Russell Contreras, in 2016 New Mexico high school graduates had a 29 percent proficiency in reading and a 20 percent proficiency in math. We must ask ourselves: what is the benefit or detriment of over valuing a four-year graduation rate?

Although 71.1 percent of our students, on average, graduate in four years, 80 percent can’t demonstrate proficiency in math, and 70 percent can’t in reading on the PARCC exam. Does it behoove New Mexico (or any state) to hold the four-year graduation rate in such esteem?

It seems to me that a better indicator of classroom success is an increasing rate of proficiency, paired with the four-year rate. Not one in exclusion of the other.


New Mexico 2015-17 PARCC Results in Math and ELA
Source: New Mexico Public Education Department


Two risk factors significant to college graduation rates include first-generation students and students who need remedial coursework. Many of our students face both factors and, although being a first-generation student has many inherent difficulties, students who take remedial courses face an even greater challenge.

A recent PBS NewsHour report indicates that 42 percent of high school graduates in New Mexico need remedial courses at their university. Extending their time in college through remedial coursework has a troubling impact on student debt, and the extended time it takes to graduate negatively influences whether they complete their degree or not.

Remediation also takes an emotional toll as students see their peer group moving forward into degree programs, while they remain stalled out until they can pass those remedial courses.

The goal of education should not exclusively be how many students graduate in four years, but how well-prepared those students are for life and college.


Percent of Students Achieving Proficiency or Above on PARCC
Source: NewMexicoKidsCAN "2017 State of Education" Report


The PARCC assessment faced many challenges to implementation in New Mexico. However, studies show the exam does as good of a job predicting college success as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). In fact, a Mathematica Policy Research study concludes that students who achieve a 4 or 5 on the PARCC are significantly less likely to need remedial courses.


In the end, New Mexico needs to make long-term investments in our students. I constantly hear educational leaders identify risk-factors for our students and work to overcome them. Yes, the ideal outcome for students is a four-year graduation. But we must also invest in making that four-year rate meaningful.

Our pursuit of this goal can't come at the expense of student learning in core competencies, or we do our students and ourselves a disservice by ignoring the long term benefit of starting college with stronger skill sets in reading and math.


Jacob Kolander - Teacher & Advisory Committee Member

Jacob Kolander is the 11th and 12th grade English Department Chair at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque. He is also a member of the New Mexico Public Education Department's Secretary’s Teacher Advisory Committee and the Professional Practices and Standards Council.