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American Graduation Initiative
Photo courtesy CUNY

Despite political pressure to improve graduation rates, few states have done anything serious to increase the low proportions of community-college students who actually earn degrees, according to a survey released today.

In the survey of community-college officials from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, by the University of Alabama Education Policy Center, two-thirds said that budget cuts will make it difficult for them to increase graduation rates. Fewer than one in 12 states had any long-term plan to pay for the costs associated with increasing the number of adults with degrees.

The news comes two and a half years after President Barack Obama announced his American Graduation Initiative, setting a goal of restoring the country to first place by 2020 in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with postsecondary credentials.

U.S. community colleges—which enroll 43 percent of the nation’s college students—were the centerpiece of the Obama plan, which he announced in 2009 at a community college near Detroit. Only one in five of those who enroll in community colleges—and, in some states, barely one in 10—graduates within three years, while only about half of students who attend four-year colleges earn their bachelor’s degrees within six years.

Budget cuts, rising tuition, limited course availability, and difficulty transferring credits from one institution to another all remain as obstacles to the Obama administration’s goal of raising community-college graduation rates by 50 percent, or producing five million more degree-holders, by 2020, and education experts have said the target is unlikely to be reached.

The University of Alabama center surveyed members of the National Council of State Directors of Community Colleges in each of the 50 states and the nation’s capital. 

About a third of respondents said community colleges in their states are limiting enrollments. More than three-quarters said that their states make it difficult to transfer credits to four-year institutions. And nearly two-thirds said their public flagship and regional universities have raised admissions standards, keeping even more community-college students out, including many from underrepresented groups that now account for the greatest growth in the U.S. population.

America’s low graduation rates now make it 16th in the world in the proportion of young people (aged 25 to 34) with postsecondary degrees.

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