Wednesday, June 03, 2009

I Was a College Dropout

A young lady in my neighborhood that has been out of high school for a year recently told my wife that she doesn’t know how she will be able to continue her college education, having lost a scholarship that required good grades. Taking chemistry in the same semester as another difficult course proved to be her undoing.

If my neighbor doesn’t make it back to college right away she will have plenty of company. The D-News reports that “fewer than 55 percent of first-time students at the average four-year college graduate within six years, and at many institutions, students have less than a one in three chance of earning a degree.”

My neighbor has been attending Weber State University, which the D-News reports had “a 29 percent graduation rate in 2007.” Ouch. That’s pretty deplorable. More than seven of every ten students that enter WSU will fail to earn a four-year degree within six years.

But wait. Wouldn’t that figure be skewed a bit by the significant number of young men that take two years off to serve a mission for the LDS Church? Well, let’s take a look at graduation rates at other universities around the state that would face the same issue — some of them to a greater degree. BYU: 78%. UofU at 56% and Westminster at 54% are both close to the national average. USU: 45%. SUU: 41%. (No figures for UVU.)

These figures come from a report titled Diplomas and Dropouts from the American Enterprise Institute. While there are certainly significant differences in “student motivation, finances, and ability,” the report finds that “there are vast disparities—even among schools educating similar students—at the less selective institutions that educate the bulk of America’s college students.” Even schools that perform very poorly continue to benefit from millions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies with almost no consideration as to quality and performance.

The D-News cites Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William A. Sederburg as saying that Utah’s overall graduation rate may actually be lower than stated the 50.5 percent in the report “because not all four-year schools are included.” If you cut out the private institutions, Utah’s overall bachelor degree graduation rate is less than 43 percent.

The authors of the report suggest that there are many things that colleges and universities can do to improve their graduation rates without sacrificing quality or even spending more money. The worst way to improve graduation rates is to lower standards. That simply disguises the problem without solving it.

Now for a confession. I was among the vast number of WSU students that have dropped out over the years. I started college when I was still 17. I put in a year, but then took 2½ years off to earn money and then to serve a mission for my church. I then put in another year before figuring that I’d take a term off to work full time and build up my savings.

That hiatus lasted much longer than one term. Eventually I returned to school when I was married, had two children, and was working full time to support my family. That was harsh. Although I had much less disposable time, I was much more focused and was a much better student. After finishing my bachelor degree, I decided to stick it out for two more years and complete a master degree. It was very tough. But I was a straight A student; something that had never been the case during my entire previous formal education.

I do not intend to imply that I was a victim of anything. My choice to drop out of college was my own. Nobody forced me to do it. But we all tend to operate within the cultural limits of organizational behavior. The fact that WSU has such a low graduation rate says something. It says that something is out of whack.

The AEI study’s authors write that “colleges and universities have many goals and serve a wide range of populations. Most students, however, attend college to earn a degree.” By that standard, many of our colleges and universities are in bad shape — some spectacularly so. Perhaps these schools can take some lessons from lowest tier schools that have reasonable graduation rates, such as Kansas State University (58%), University of Wisconsin–Platteville (53%), and Walla Walla University (53%).

The AEI report conveniently lists the top 10 and bottom 10 schools according to graduation rate in each of six tiers. It should be noted that most of the schools on the six top 10 lists (86%) and on the six bottom 10 lists (66%) are privately owned. But there are some important differences. 58 percent of the schools on the top 10 lists are religiously affiliated, while only 17 percent of schools on the bottom 10 lists currently have religious affiliation.

Perhaps the high dropout rates at some schools illustrates the point made in this January 2007 post, where I discussed Charles Murray’s series of WSJ articles (part 1, part 2, part 3) where he makes the claim that, with a few notable exceptions, college is not the best way to credentialize workers for the modern workforce. Murray asserts that the push to graduate an increasing portion of the population from college dilutes the actual value of a university degree. (Murray followed this up with this August 2008 op-ed, where he calls for replacing the BA degree with “evidence of competence” on the apprentice-journeyman-craftsman model for all types of jobs.)

At any rate, colleges and universities should accept the fact that they are in the business of producing competent degree holding graduates. For that to happen, the people that pay money into these schools — students, parents, businesses, and taxpayers (and their representatives) — need to achieve this same vision and then require some accountability. Having information about graduation rates is a nice first step. But don’t expect improvement to happen until the people that control the cash flow into the colleges and universities tie those dollars to degree outcomes.


Charles D said...

Our educational system and work culture pushes young people into college whether that is an appropriate place for them or not. Many young people are simply not college material and there is no shame in finding a career that doesn't require a BA degree.

That said, I fear that graduation rates are not really a good indicator of the quality of a college. Too many young people graduate from our colleges and universities without a real education and without the skills they need to succeed.

Probably the biggest factor in the dropout rate currently is money. After decades of cutbacks in Federal aid to education and subsidized grants and loans, and the rising cost of tuition many students simply cannot afford to continue. Even public universities are becoming more and more expensive.

The result of this political neglect is that we are trapping young people in the same economic strata of their parents, without the opportunity we had at their age.

Scott Hinrichs said...

You make the same point as Charles Murray, that many of those that enter college are ill suited for college and that there are ways to succeed in life without a college degree.

Money is definitely a big factor in the dropout rate. However, the massive subsidy industry actually works to drive tuition costs up rather than driving them down. Waste is rampant among colleges and universities. One of the reasons for this is that administrators know that there is a steady stream of sponsored cash that will keep coming their way, so there is no need to curb waste.

But the bigger reason is, as you state, high demand for college diplomas. The culture, educational system, and business system all work together to create stronger demand for diplomas. As with anything, when demand for a scarce product increases, so does the price.

As Murray points out, however, a college degree is not necessarily a good deal for businesses. With few exceptions, a degree does not provide actual credentials for performing a job. The employer still has to put in lots of training to get an employee to a functional level.

What a degree does is demonstrate that a job applicant has an above average IQ. It is essentially illegal to administer intelligence tests, so employers use this method instead. However, getting more people to complete degrees actually pushes down the average IQ of degree recipients. This renders degrees less useful to employers. This has caused a surge in demand for post graduate degrees. Can you see this cycle repeating itself at each level?

In the last election, one candidate that eventually dropped out called for free college for everyone. Imagine imposing our problematic K-12 model on higher education? Imagine how much less a college education would be worth at that point.

That said, there are many things that colleges and universities can do to ensure that they are getting qualified entrants and then to help them stay on task until they complete their degrees. Many colleges actually erect many unnecessary barriers to degree completion, even for decent students. Those barriers should be torn down.

Charles D said...

I don't know if you're old enough, but I remember when a college education was free in some states (New York and California) and a great many people who could never have afforded a college education graduated and made important contributions to our nation.

We should neither force young people to go to college nor prohibit them from doing so because of the exorbitant cost. What we should do is encourage those young people who demonstrate the ability and desire to succeed in college and provide solid vocational training and job opportunities for the rest of our children.

By withdrawing support from colleges and students, our governments are throwing away our futre.