ASU president: Colleges face a 'completion crisis' — half the students since 1980 never graduated

  • The more pressing crisis facing higher education is not student debt but graduation rates, says Arizona State University President Michael Crow.
  • "If you finish with a little debt, you're fine," he says. "If you have debt and don't finish, you have a huge problem."

The more pressing crisis facing higher education in America is not the $1.5 trillion in student debt but the dismal graduation rates, Arizona State University President Michael Crow told CNBC on Thursday.

"It's a completion crisis, not a debt crisis," Crow said in a "Squawk Box" interview.

"If you finish with a little debt, you're fine. You'll be able to manage your way through that in most cases," he said. "If you have debt and don't finish, you have a huge problem."

Crow said that more than half the students who have gone to college in the U.S. since 1980 never graduated.

"People don't finish because the system is so narrow. There's not enough tolerance for the complete variability in our society," he said, meaning life gets in the way and schools are not flexible enough.

Those degree completion rates were a bit higher when the time frame was compressed, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Of the students who started four-year and two-year degrees in the fall of 2011, 56.9 percent finished in six years.

Colleges manage endowment returns for the 'very long term'

Crow also responded to a different study about how major endowments in the United States, including those managed by colleges and universities, "badly underperform" market benchmarks.

"When you're trying to run an institution that you want to last 1,000 years or longer, which some universities have, your logic in approaching the endowment system is different. You take very long term, low risk steps and strategies. So it's just the length of the performance outcome you're looking for," Crow said.

In research from Georgetown University and NYU's Stern School of Business, economists found the nation's endowments posted median annual returns 5.53 percentage points below a classic 60-40 mix of U.S. equity and Treasury bond indexes between 2009 and 2016.

Crow, executive vice provost at Columbia University before taking over at ASU in 2002, said colleges often have much longer time horizons, in some cases "over 100 years or 150 years or 200 years."

"When I was at Columbia, I remember looking at endowment documents, reading them, that were written in the Civil War; and going through the letters trying to decide if we could do what we wanted to do with the money given by somebody in 1863," Crow said.