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higher education problems
Kai Drekmeier (Photo by Julia Ra)

Low college graduation rates are a hot topic of discussion in America, with frequent mention of the fact that we’re falling behind other countries. As more nontraditional students attend college and the cost of higher education continues to rise, the challenges for those trying to obtain a degree continue to grow. To address these issues, President Barack Obama has made improving college graduation rates a centerpiece of his education policy, with a particular focus on the country’s community colleges.

Kai Drekmeier, co-founder and president of InsideTrack, a company that provides coaching for students at universities around the country, sat down with The Hechinger Report recently to discuss issues ranging from how to improve college graduation rates to how the culture of higher education may affect progress in this area.

You’ve used the metaphor of a train derailing to illustrate the fact that 800,000 of the two million students who entered higher education last year would not graduate. What is causing this train wreck?

There are many barriers and issues that interfere with a student’s ability to succeed. The ones that are thought of as most common are finances—people are concerned with the cost of higher ed—and the academics, but the biggest one is that life gets in the way. These are all problems that students could overcome if they had the right level of support. When InsideTrack provides coaching to a student, we’re having an ongoing discussion over the course of a year, and as we look back at all the nuances of that student’s experiences, we’re able to understand exactly what did or did not happen and why they did or did not succeed. The challenge with our current system is that any time a student needs help, we’re dealing with it reactively when it’s too late. With or without InsideTrack, institutions need to do more to proactively support students and help them set up a plan to overcome these various obstacles that emerge.

What institutional and cultural realities on the ground make it so hard for universities to fix this graduation problem?

I think a good framework to think about when you think about behavior or driving outcomes is you can first think about the individual and his or her responsibility. Can the student do better, etc.? But then you have to think about the situation and condition in which they operate that are supporting that. And in that case, most universities when you really do a review of their processes, there are opportunities to make changes and improvement, whether it’s in financial aid or the way that institutions handle early interventions to support students who need more academic support.

The biggest challenge is just thinking about community colleges—that often the resources that are there for students, the students need to be proactive about reaching out to use them. And if they don’t, they’re not going to get help. So what happens is the more motivated students who use the resources effectively are going to be fine, and the students who need more support don’t get the support that they need. Also, community colleges are often—as far as the advising needed for incoming students—there aren’t enough resources.

In researching InsideTrack, I saw it mentioned multiple times that students who seek it are the more motivated students who don’t necessarily need your services—so, essentially, that InsideTrack is helping those who were better off to begin with. What are your thoughts on this?

Our approach is to reach out proactively to all students, and typically when a student is not responsive, that is a sign that probably some support is needed. And we’ve worked very hard to make sure that the coaching has intrinsic value to the student. We’re most effective when we can reach students before there’s any problem at all and position coaching as something that is beneficial to them and not just that they’ll do better in school and will be more likely to complete but that we’re going to make their experience better and really reduce stress.

How committed do you think higher education is to fixing the graduation rate problem?

I think there’s huge commitment in higher ed right now [to] addressing this issue. The challenge is that most higher-education institutions are fairly slow-moving, and generally there is a resistance to careful measurement of interventions in higher ed. As we measure things, not only do we know if they work but we’re able to improve them … The majority of people in higher ed have their hearts in the the right place. They want to change the world and do good. But I think we need to see a greater emphasis on measurement and adoption of best practices. That is what’s going to help drive better outcomes and also help us control costs.

Great segue: costs. This is talked about constantly nowadays. What’s your perspective on the ballooning costs in higher ed? Why is it happening?

From what I’m hearing and seeing, it appears that college presidents are aware that they need to keep tuition down. It is now clear that we cannot expect tuition to continue to rise. It is going to depend on the specific institutions where they have an opportunity to become more cost effective. The challenge facing institutions is that it’s such a politically difficult thing to do—whether you’re going to reduce staff, academic programs and salaries, which have increased a lot. There are going to be people who find it very threatening.

What kind of financial investment do you think it is going to take to graduate a higher number of nontraditional students?

It’s a really interesting question. Obama’s goal is for 60 percent of adults to have some degree. I think that’s achievable over the next 10 years, and it’s possible to do it with no additional funds, but the problem is that with all of the current funding it’s difficult to pull things away to fund differently.

What do you mean by that?

If a university needs to change its budget, there are pretty strong interests that are going to stand in the way of cutting certain programs to the point where it may be politically difficult for a president to make the changes that he or she would need to make. If the federal government were to provide additional funding only for measured programs with proven outcomes, I think they could get half-way or the entire way to the goal for less than $1,000 a student.

I would also say that universities could do a lot more to ensure that incoming students are well-prepared, not just in terms of their academic readiness but have the right expectations regarding the amount of time and rigor that success in college takes. I’m not blaming K12 necessarily … the general critique I would make of our culture is that whether it’s k-12 or higher ed, we’re not expecting enough of our students. This is challenging, especially for low-income students, but the amount of work that students are doing in high school and college is often interfering with their ability to really apply themselves and take it seriously. Generally, no one right now wants to be advocating for students to take on more debt. But the idea that you’re going to work in a low-wage job in college or in high school to offset the cost because you don’t want to take [out] more loans, you may be shooting yourself in the foot if it is interfering with your ability to focus, pass your classes and finish on time. Anything we can do to help students not only finish but finish in four or four and a half years makes a big difference. It’s a huge value, not just to society but to the individual student.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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