By TAMAR LEWIN
In an effort to improve the college completion rate and fend off new regulations, a commission of the nation’s six leading higher-education associations is calling for extensive reforms to serve a changing college population — one increasingly composed of older and part-time students.
“This is the first time in the history of modern higher education in which all the communities have come together — community colleges, research institutions, public universities and small liberal arts colleges — and reached agreement that completion needs to be our most important priority,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment.
The report, “College Completion Must Be Our Priority,” which will be released on Thursday, calls on colleges and universities to find ways to give students credit for previous learning, through exams like the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program, portfolio assessments or other college equivalency evaluations. It also calls for more services and flexibility for nontraditional students, suggesting innovations like midnight classes, easier credit transfers and more efficient course delivery, including online classes.
“These are all very important things, they’re all unusual, and they’re things we’re not doing,” Dr. Gee said. “We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate. I’m going to call this person the completion dean.”
Almost half of the students who begin college at a two- or four-year institution fail to earn a degree within six years.
Whether the report will lead to change is unclear. But Molly C. Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said she believed it would create a new sense of urgency.
“We have policies and practices built when colleges were filled with full-time, 18- to 22-year-old students who needed to be provided not only educational opportunities, but fed, protected, counseled and given recreation,” she said. “But that’s not our world today, when the overwhelming majority are part-time students juggling jobs, older students, veterans, whom we need to treat fairly — and do it on our own rather than have it done unto us.”
Dr. Gee, who called the report “proactive and pre-emptive,” said it reflected a broad consensus about the importance of helping more students earn degrees, as quickly as possible, but did not prescribe specific actions to be taken by individual institutions.
Another report released on Thursday, “The American Dream 2.0,” from a coalition of higher-education advocates, raised a similar alarm about college graduation rates, and the financial burden on those who take out student loans but do not earn a degree. “Many students without a credential are plunged underwater financially,” the report said. “When students leave college with no credential and a load of debt, they may be worse off than when they entered.”
Since the job market does not favor college dropouts the way it does graduates, said Kevin Carey, director of education policy at the New America Foundation, “it’s not just enough to let people in, or even to let them in and make sure they can afford it in an abstract way.”
The “American Dream” report suggests making the financial aid application process simpler and more transparent, and holding both schools and students accountable for completion.
While education experts are increasingly focused on graduation rates, many students and families are not. According to the 2012 survey of first-year college students by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, students at four-year institutions significantly overestimate their likelihood of completing college on time. About 8 in 10 said they expected to graduate from their institution in four years, but national statistics show that only about 4 in 10 do so.
“Among students just starting college, there’s a significant mismatch between their expectations and the reality that most students don’t graduate four years later from the institution where they started,” said John H. Pryor, managing director of the U.C.L.A. institute and an author of the annual report, “The American Freshman: National Norms.”
“When we talk about these colleges, we call them four-year colleges, so the implication is that you’re going to finish in four years,” Mr. Pryor said. “And even though there’s been a huge push to publish the four-year graduation rates, students and families just are not that well-informed.”
This was the first time the survey, of 192,812 first-year, full-time students at 283 four-year institutions, discussed expectations of on-time graduation.
Mr. Pryor, whose son is a first-year college student, said the statistical evidence was backed up by the many college presentations he attended over the last year, not one of which mentioned the institution’s four-year graduation rate.
“I’d be the guy looking it up and saying, ‘Excuse me, you only have a 35 percent four-year graduation rate, so what are you doing to improve retention?’ ” he said. “But no one else seemed aware of the issue.”
The U.C.L.A. survey also found that students were feeling increasing financial pressure. Two-thirds said the economic climate had significantly affected their college choice, and 13 percent said they could not afford to attend their first-choice university, the highest percentage since that question was first asked in 2006.
Students were more likely than in the past to say that getting a better job and making more money were very important reasons for their decision to go to college, and that “being very well-off financially” was a goal.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 25, 2013
An article on Thursday about a call for extensive reforms at colleges so they can better serve a changing student population misstated part of the name of an organization at the University of California, Los Angeles, that conducted a 2012 survey of first-year college students. It is the Higher Education Research Institute (not Institution).
A version of this article appeared in print on January 24, 2013, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: To Raise Graduation Rate, Colleges Are Urged to Help a Changing Student Body.