How Technology is Helping Improve Graduation Rates

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By Justin Boyle

Let’s face it: college graduation rates could be better.

According to an ongoing study by ACT, only a little more than half of students who enrolled in four-year public college degree programs persist through to graduation in 2012. In fact, public universities are dealing with some of the lowest completion rates in recent memory.

Although private universities graduate virtually the same percentage today as they did 20 years ago, the proportion of students who graduated in five years or less from a four-year public university dropped from 46.7 percent in 1992 to 42.9 percent in 2012. The overall graduation rate for all four-year colleges dropped from 54.4 to 51.9 percent in the same period.

Why are all these students dropping out? More importantly, how can educational technology help keep them in?

Education technology and graduation rates

A report publicized on CNN Money in 2012 sheds a little light on why graduation rates may have fallen off the way they have. Tuition rates at four-year public colleges have more than doubled in the last ten years, skyrocketing to the current national average of $8,655 per year.

Add costs like transportation and textbooks to the rising price of tuition and it’s no wonder students are leaving school once they get a measure of the financial hole they’re digging for themselves. Fortunately for aspiring grads, there are a few edtech solutions that may help ease the burden.

MOOCs and other online courses

Cost-conscious students may be able to cut some of the prohibitive expense out of their total tuition and fees by taking some of their general education courses in the virtual classroom. While some programs (especially schools that use distance learning programs) may cost as much as the brick-and-mortar variety, the flexible scheduling of online classes can help take some of the stress out of a full-time course load and enable a busy student to finish school.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are usually free, and some schools are beginning to offer them for credit. Some may also come with perks beyond just their online education environment and open enrollment policy; signing up for a few subject-specific MOOCs can help students better understand what they might be in for as their chosen major subject progresses into the upper levels, helping prevent dropouts related to uninformed choice of major.

Low cost, high-powered virtual textbooks

Just about any student will tell you that textbook costs are out of control these days. In the years between 1986 and 2005, the average cost of textbooks went up by 186 percent, almost tripling in cost.

Prohibitively expensive textbooks can cause students to try going without them, and grades can suffer as a result. It’s a near certainty that more than a few students in recent history have left school before graduation because of poor grade performance.

Edtech addresses this textbook problem in more than one way:

  • Texts and other course materials for online classes may be provided electronically, sometimes for modest fees that may be included in the cost of enrollment
  • Students can purchase electronic versions of some textbooks directly from the textbook publisher, saving on manufacturing and transportation costs as well as retail markup
  • Universities can arrange institutional purchase of electronic textbooks needed in certain common courses and provide them to all enrolled students for a comparatively small materials fee

What’s more, some edtech startups are working to provide an even further upside to the world of Textbook 2.0. These innovative virtual textbook tools (like the ones described in this recent edCetera article) include Dynamic Books, which allows professors to rearrange textbook content to suit their curriculum, and Inkling, which offers search, navigation and multimedia features and an option to pay only for the parts of the text that students need.

How can your school take action?

With all the changes that developments in edtech are bringing to our education system, it certainly couldn’t hurt to have some more controlled studies of the influence that emerging technologies are having on graduation rates.

We can compare generalities to get a roundabout idea of the effect that today’s technology has on student achievement, but a few more specific case studies would undoubtedly add to our understanding of educational technology in the field. If your school is in the process of adopting new edtech programs or devices, find out which department can help track graduation rates alongside the penetration and integration of that technology.

Perhaps better still, there might be something your school can do to contribute to the quality and efficiency of methods used to gather and interpret student data. Edtech innovators are also applying their talents to the collection and analysis of data on campus, and studies show that efforts to understand the lives and expectations of a newly arriving class of students can help turn a larger percentage of them into a graduating class in four years or so.

The bottom line is that graduation rates matter across the board, to legislators, administrators, parents and prospective students, and it looks like advancements in edtech may start helping bring those numbers up.

About the author:
Justin Boyle is a tutor, editor and designer who works in media production for an ecology non-profit.

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