Colleges’ failing graduation rates

The news: The amount of student loan debt has surpassed the nation’s credit card debt, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.

Behind the news: Thousands of students from two Illinois public universities are racking up millions in debt but won’t graduate. Chicago State University on the city’s South Side and Northeastern Illinois University on the city’s Northwest Side have the worst graduation rates among the state’s nine public, four-year universities, which are disbursed throughout 12 campuses. The two schools were recently named among the 50 worst in the nation, according to Washington Monthly. Just 13 percent of students graduate from Chicago State and 18 percent from Northeastern.

According to a Chicago Reporter analysis of Illinois State Board of Higher Education records, 79 percent of Chicago State students got financial aid, racking up nearly $37 million in student loans in fiscal year 2009. At Northeastern, 62 percent of students got financial aid accruing nearly $18 million in loans in fiscal year 2009.

For both Chicago State and Northeastern, minority students make up a large sector of enrollment. At Chicago State, 80 percent of the student body is black compared with Illinois State University, where only 5 percent is black and the graduation rate is 70 percent.

Carrying a load of debt and getting no degree doesn’t just negatively affect students themselves but also their communities, said Tom Sugar, senior vice president with Complete College America, a nonprofit working to increase college graduation rates. Many students are first-generation college students. “There is great damage done when these kids go back to their communities and say, –˜Don’t do it,'” he said.

The problem, Sugar said, is that colleges are structured to meet the needs of full-time, parent-supported students living on campus, when the majority of college students are now nontraditional.

Levon James, a marketing major at Chicago State and former student trustee on the university board, agreed. He said the school’s graduation rate reflects the large number of students who are sometimes unprepared for college or balancing real-life with getting their degree.

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