At Northeastern Illinois University, a tidy commuter campus on the North Side of Chicago, only 17 percent of students who enroll as full-time freshmen graduate within six years, according to data collected by the federal Department of Education. At Chicago State University on the South Side, the overall graduation rate is 16 percent.
As dismal as those rates seem, the universities are not unique. About 50 colleges across the country have a six-year graduation rate below 20 percent, according to the Education Trust, a nonprofit research group. Many of the institutions serve low-income and minority students.
Such numbers have prompted a fierce debate here — and in national education circles — about who is to blame for the results, whether they are acceptable for nontraditional students, and how universities should be held accountable if the vast majority of students do not graduate.
“If you’re accepting a child into your institution, don’t you have the responsibility to make sure they graduate?” asked Melissa Roderick, the co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produced the study.
“I think people had absolutely no idea that our local colleges were running graduation rates like that,” Dr. Roderick said. “I don’t think we have any high school in the city that has graduation rates like these colleges.”
Northeastern’s results were particularly low among African-Americans, with only 8 percent of entering full-time freshmen earning degrees within six years.
The report, which was released last spring, examined students who graduated from Chicago public schools in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2003. It also cited federal statistics showing that only 4 percent of all African-American students at Northeastern Illinois graduated within six years. The most recent federal data, released in August, shows the figure to be 8 percent for freshmen who entered in 1999 and would have graduated by 2005.
A federal commission that examined the future of American higher education recommended in August that colleges and universities take more responsibility for ensuring that students complete their education. Charles Miller, the commission chairman, said that if graduation rates were more readily available, universities would be forced to pay more attention to them.
“Universities in America rank themselves on many factors, but graduation rates aren’t even in the mix,” Mr. Miller said. “They don’t talk about it.”
Others say policy makers are to blame for failing to take action against public universities or administrators if most of their students fail to earn a degree.
“Most colleges aren’t held accountable in any way for their graduation rate,” said Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor of education and social policy at the Graduate School of Education. “We treat college as if the right to enroll is enough, and just ignore everything else.”
Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at the Education Sector, a nonprofit research organization, said governors and legislatures could make it clear that the presidents’ continued employment hinged on improving graduation rates. “That’s what businesses do,” he said.
“When you have a system where virtually everyone fails, how is that different from designing a system in which the point is for people to fail?” Mr. Carey added. “No one can look at that and say this is the best we can do.”
Officials in Illinois are considering whether to provide financial incentives to universities that show progress on improving graduation rates, said Judy Erwin, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The presidents of Northeastern Illinois and Chicago State, both part of the state university system, robustly defend their institutions. They say the universities serve a valuable mission, educating untraditional students who often take a long time to complete course work.
Many of their students are the first in their families to go to college, they said. Many come ill prepared. Often the students are older, have children and work full time.
“I think the work of this institution should be lauded rather than criticized,” said Elnora D. Daniel, the president of Chicago State, where 86 percent of the 7,300 students are African-American. “And I say that for all public institutions nationally that attract and have as part of their mission the education of low-income, disadvantaged minorities.”
Dr. Daniel also said that conventional methods for calculating graduation rates significantly understate how many students actually earn degrees. Universities calculate how many freshmen who enrolled as full-time students six years earlier have graduated. Students who transfer to other universities do not count as graduates, even if they graduate from another institution. Nor do students who transfer into the university and eventually graduate.
About half of the undergraduates at both universities have transferred in from other institutions, primarily community colleges, officials said.
The presidents also said that six years is not always a fair standard.
“That it takes another year or two years longer should be a mark of distinction,” said Salme Harju Steinberg, the president of Northeastern Illinois. “That person should be commended for the remarkable effort that he is making.”
Nearly half of the 12,200 students at Northeastern Illinois attend part time, Dr. Steinberg said. “They have families to support,” she said. “So of course it’s going to take longer.” About 43 percent are white, according to federal data, 29 percent are Hispanic, and 12 percent are African-American.
The graduation rate at Chicago State after seven years is nearly 35 percent, compared with the six-year rate of 16 percent, Dr. Daniel said. At Northeastern Illinois, where the six-year rate is 17 percent, the 10-year rate is 23 percent, university officials said.
Programs to mentor and tutor untraditional students are essential for their success, many educators said. But such programs are expensive, and in the past four years in Illinois, the state’s contribution to public universities declined 16 percent, Dr. Steinberg said.
“It is important to make sure that institutions of this type do indeed have the financial wherewithal to meet the needs of these special students,” Dr. Daniel said, “and so often that is not the case.”
The nature of their student bodies does not completely explain the rates at Northeastern Illinois and Chicago State. Some comparable universities with similar students have significantly higher graduation rates, academic experts said, and there are lessons to be learned from them.
“There are certain things that stand out about institutions that do better than you would expect,” said Vincent Tinto, a professor of education at Syracuse University. “One is that they are willing to commit resources and to align their resources in a systematic way. Two, they understand the importance of support for student academic success.”
At Elizabeth City State University, a historically black institution in North Carolina, the graduation rate is 49 percent. Class attendance is mandatory, and everyone on campus helps enforce the rules and support the students, said Carolyn R. Mahoney, a former provost and vice chancellor at Elizabeth City who is now president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.
At Murray State University in Murray, Ky., the graduation rate increased to 57 percent from 43 percent during the first half of the decade. F. King Alexander, who was president at the time, made graduation a central theme. Among other things, he encouraged commuting students to spend more time on campus, because students involved in extra-curricular activities are more likely to finish college.
“They have to think about graduation from the day they walk on campus,” said Dr. Alexander, now the president of California State University, Long Beach.
That is not always the prime focus for students at Northeastern Illinois. Afifa Amin, 24, began college in 2000. She transferred to Northeastern Illinois two years ago, switched her major several times and took a year off from school.
Now a part-time student majoring in computer science, Ms. Amin hopes to graduate in 2009. “I know it’s a long time, nine years,” she said, “but it’s better than not graduating.”