Bridge to College
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Bridge to College

Graduation Rates and Sallie Mae

When I was in college, it was never a question of how long it would take me to graduate: four years or less. My friends, who were also on scholarship, had the same mentality. During finals, we would give each other a head nod when we spotted each other in the library: “You got this? Four years or less?”

“Four years or less.”

My cousin who is a few years older than me, attended a public university in California.

Around that four year mark for her, we had a conversation: “I don’t think I’m done learning yet. I think I’ll stay another semester or two. There’s this…”

“Wait, what? I know for sure I’m not done learning yet but I did learn the cash runs out,” I said.

“I have about $5000 left in scholarship money and that’s about how much it costs for a semester here.”

Clearly, that was a very long time ago.

Public education, including higher education, has always been the hallmark of this country. While there are certainly rivals around the world, no where else can one go to schools of such high academic caliber as Berkeley, or Georgia Tech, or Chapel Hill for cheap.

At least in theory.

I’m going to give you the punch line first: public universities have become more expensive than private universities, take longer to get to graduation, and a majority of the students do not earn a degree.

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I do want to point fingers. When it comes to education, I can be petty like this.

We have public universities here in California that graduate 5% of its students in six years.

Private colleges don’t necessarily graduate all of their students either. Some of these schools graduate 30% of their students in six years. This excludes the for-profit institutions that have terrible graduation rates and terrible post-graduation hiring percentages.

Here’s why: While we can point to a number of things, one major thing happened since I had that conversation with my cousin: Sallie Mae privatized.

In 2004, Sallie Mae completed the privatization process. This meant that they could lend families far and above the cost of tuition. This seems insignificant but it meant that universities were not required to meet the financial need of the student. This also meant that colleges could increase their tuition at ridiculous rates. You can read more about all of that here.

It’s been twenty years since I graduated from my undergraduate institution and the cost of attendance there has more than doubled in that time. The other schools where I applied, public universities in California, have tripled during that time.

I really want this first point to sit for a while. In my work in ed tech and education in general, we simply ignore this fact. Or worse, we blame the student and family: a student attending a college she can’t afford is because she made a bad decision, or didn’t know how to complete a form, or didn’t have the grades to get into the college that would fund them. If she wanted to go to Harvard for free, why didn’t she just apply? None of that is true. It’s that “let them eat cake” logic that’s gotten us in this mess.

In 2014, the federal government passed a number of laws intended to help students in a ton of student loan debt. If a student couldn’t pay their loans, the federal government would give the money to the institution anyway. And since student loans cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy, students would still have to pay the loan eventually. The debt on the credit report is no small matter. That will impact car purchases, mortgages, credit cards, hiring…everything.

All that means this: universities are incentivized to charge astronomical tuitions.

That’s another one I want to let sit there for a while.

I want to add one more piece to ponder: Most college students will never graduate from college. The majority of colleges don’t graduate their students on-time or at all. In my work, we’ve done research and come up with a list of just under 200 colleges and universities, of over 4000 in the country, that graduate at least 70% of their students in six years. Other data sets say that about 30% of colleges graduate 80% of students.

Regardless of degree attainment, you will still get that bill.

I would like to point out another matter here. The reasons why colleges do not graduate their students vary but mostly have to do with the university being impacted: too many students need something that the university is not offering. That is a structural problem, not a student problem. I believe if the university admitted the student, the university is on the hook to meet that students’ needs. It sickens me to see universities admit students they know will not graduate from their institutions and put nothing in place to ensure the student will graduate. But again, the student will still get the bill.

Imagine I’m a surgeon who completes surgery successfully 5% of the time. Would the hospital keep sending me patients? How long before someone stops me from doing surgery? Should I keep sending bills to that other 95%?

You have some colleges that have drastically changed their practices since these changes occurred. They accept everyone, regardless of fit or preparedness. They will get their money regardless so what difference does it make if the student graduates?

There is the difference though: colleges are ranked by a number of data points, including graduation rates. Some colleges care about their rankings. That means you need to care about their rankings, or at least the data on graduation.

Let’s take Stanford. 99% of students receive some money, 75% are fully-funded. This is because they have a huge endowment that says they need to fund students and keep things affordable. They will also get you out of there — 98% of students graduate on-time. And they make sure you are employed after graduation; you aren’t ruining their good name. There is that minor detail of that admit rate (4.6%) but the point I’m trying to make is that we are looking at the wrong data points when we think about college.

Some of you just got mad at me so let me explain a little more about why I seem so unconcerned about admissions rates. There are two reasons. I had a professor in grad school who reminded us that, at least in theory, universities could do away with admissions altogether. The more students they admit, the more they could potentially get in tuition. That could even drop tuition for everyone. The admissions part really just lends to this notion of prestige — I am part of the 4.6%. And wouldn’t it be interesting if the greatest minds in the world taught students who weren’t already successful academically? What would it mean if we thought about education as transformative as it has the potential to be?

The other reason is I don’t believe universities change their policies and behaviors based on their admissions rates. I believe it’s their yields and we’ve developed our app, Bridge to College, with this in mind, along with the other premises you’ve read here. I call it Dating App Mentality: I am not changing my behavior based on how much I swipe right; I’m changing it based on how many times I’ve matched on those instances where I’ve swiped right. If I always swipe right but never get a match, I’ll change things up. If I rarely swipe right, but always match, I’ll probably keep doing things the same way.

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I do want to discuss the larger problem when it comes to this point: the messaging. It is true that just because someone is offered a bad loan, it doesn’t mean they have to take it. That was part of the argument during the housing crisis.

The thing that gets me on this point is that the people who should know better either don’t know or don’t think it’s a big deal. So we have really high-achieving low-income students being told they can’t afford to go to college. Or we have middle income students being told to go to public universities or one of these private colleges masquerading as a legit institution. In some cases (and this really gets me), students are told not to take the classes that will get them into High-Ranking College because Masquerading College doesn’t require it. We are telling kids to bypass an actual degree in four years with funding rather than take Calculus or Physics!

And if you’re wondering about community colleges, the data is even worse. The percentage of students who successfully transfer, meaning they’ve gone into a community college with the intention of transferring and have graduated with a Bachelor’s degree — is incredibly low, around 14%. Most students will take longer and end up owing more money than if they went to a four-year college directly. With AP classes, IB programs, concurrent enrollment, and middle colleges, there are many ways to do what the community college used to do without spending the extra time and money. With the exception of the AP exams, those options are free. So while I have tremendous love and respect for the advocates of free community college for all, I do think there are some structural things that need to be put in place to make that a viable solution.

I wanted to start with this piece as part of a series because it impacts so many other things related to college access, including tracking to how we invest in ed tech. If we first come with the assumption that there is a major flaw in the tools students are given to graduate from college, specifically the tool to fund their graduation, we can see the other flaws in the system. I believe the most important of these flaws being that misconception that the student or family is somehow to blame.

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As a country, we do this all the time. Take the controversies around fast food and high obesity and diabetes rates, especially in low-income communities. We don’t talk about food deserts, low wages, or the addictive qualities of sugar, fat, and salt. We blame the families, claim they‘re bad decision-makers, and tell them to join a gym. The people doing the blaming are usually those who’ve never lived in a food desert and never had to make a decision between medication and a meal.

It’s the same here: we tell students in public schools that they can only achieve so much, that it will cost them more than they can afford, and usher them to schools that will not graduate them and will ramp up the debt. It’s usually done by people who have incredibly high-paying jobs, went to really elite colleges, and have the ability to enact more change.

That’s the crisis I see in higher education.


  • Colleges are incentivized to put students into debt.
  • A majority of colleges do not graduate students on-time.
  • The combination means we have an education crisis of colleges intentionally putting students in debt disguised as a problem of families making bad decisions.
  • Our attention and dollars, if given, are pointed at the wrong problem.




Bridge to College is a data company that helps students find the right college fit. That means we research a lot. And write a lot. And make it available to you.

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Vielka Hoy

Vielka Hoy

CEO and Founder at Bridge to College

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