Low graduation rates and high costs across Connecticut colleges, report says

A new report from the nonprofit Education Reform Now CT shows that multiple four-year colleges in the state have low 6-year graduation rates or charge high net prices to low-income students, or both, compared with similar schools across the country.

But representatives of some of the colleges have taken issue with which schools were deemed comparable, and have pointed to the impact of decreasing financial aid from the state.

Education Reform Now, an arm of the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, on Tuesday released a report called "Less for More: Low Rates of Completion and High Costs at Connecticut's Four-Year Colleges."

The report used information from College Results Online, a site that uses data from the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to compare institutions that are similar based on admissions and student body characteristics. It looked at 22 schools, excluding five colleges and universities for which information comparable with national peers was not available.

The report showed that three of the 22 institutions consistently graduate less than 50 percent of their first-time, full-time student populations within six years: Mitchell College, the University of Bridgeport and Western Connecticut State University.

The report showed that Mitchell's 6-year graduation rate was 39.6 percent in 2015, 45.1 percent in 2016 and 40.8 percent in 2017.

In an email response, Mitchell College interim Co-President Mary-Jane McLaughlin said Mitchell "intentionally enrolls a diverse body of students, including those with complex learning styles who often need additional learning support to reach their full potential. The highly individualized education offered here may not necessarily be a linear journey and can take more time for some students. This changes the dynamics of the statistics, which are not reflected in this report."

The report cited seven schools, including the aforementioned three, for routinely having 6-year graduation rates under 50 percent for underrepresented minority populations, which College Results Online defines as black, Latino and Native American students.

On the other end, Connecticut College had the third-highest 6-year graduation rate for these students in 2016, behind only Yale and Wesleyan universities, with a rate of 84.2 percent.

Less positive news for Connecticut College is its ranking as third-highest out of 16 comparable institutions for average net price — after federal, state and institutional aid — for low-income students in 2016. College Results Online included Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Franklin and Marshall, Washington and Lee, and Mount Holyoke among comparable schools.

Sean Martin, director of financial aid services at Conn College, said he found the report "a little bit misleading" and thought the comparisons seemed inconsistent.

He said Conn College meets full demonstrated need as an institution and has increased institutional grant expenditures from $18 million to $38 million over the past decade.

But during the same time, he said, annual state aid to the school dropped from $480,000 to $38,000.

Similarly, Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges President Jennifer Widness pointed out that the state cut the grant for needy students attending independent colleges in the state by 75 percent since 2011. CCIC includes Mitchell and Conn College.

"On all measures, CT lags the national average in state investment in financial aid for public and private colleges," Widness wrote in an email, adding, "State investments in need-based financial aid improves retention and keeps net price down for low-income students and must be part of the dialogue on improving outcomes for minority students."

The report included Conn College and the University of Connecticut among 12 institutions that "charged at least double a national peer when it comes to net prices for low-income students."

But the appendix showed that while Conn College charged double what five of its 15 peers charged, UConn charged double what only one peer charged, and that school — the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — was an outlier on the low end.

The average net price for low-income students at UConn in 2016 was $11,626, while the average of the 16 in its peer group was $15,360.

This put UConn at a rank of sixth-lowest, but the report's page of "Key Findings" included UConn under a list of schools "that have average net prices for low-income students that are significantly higher than most of their peer institutions serving similar students."

UConn spokesperson Stephanie Reitz pointed out this discrepancy in an email, while also noting that the 6-year graduation rate at the Avery Point campus has increased from 58 percent in 2016 to 65 percent.

She also said that several institutions on the comparison list aren't traditional peers or competitors, meaning UConn doesn't compete for the same students. The list includes Boston University, Drexel University, Syracuse University, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and University of Delaware.

Reitz also noted that since most regional campuses are 100 percent commuter, "we understand that there is a segment of our enrolled student population that intend to begin their degree at one of UConn's regional campuses, and finish somewhere else."

Amy Dowell, Connecticut state director of Education Reform Now, said the report originated with a meeting the organization had with Hartford Promise several months ago, with the realization that it would be helpful to students to inform them of graduation rates when they're deciding where to go to college.

She noted that if students incur a debt burden but don't get a degree, it's not good for them or the state economy. One immediate action point, she said, is expanding the guided pathways approach at community colleges — with mentorship and advising — "more robustly" into four-year colleges.

The report cited four "double offenders," schools that have low graduation rates and high net prices for low-income students: Southern Connecticut State University, University of Bridgeport, University of Hartford and Western Connecticut State University.

e.moser@theday.com

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