Back in the days of riverboat gamblers, a well-equipped player kept insurance against a streak of bad luck. The gambler carried an
Last year, the state of
They limited the number of course requirements at state colleges and universities. This should make it easier for students to graduate, but the main thrust of the bill is to lower the barriers for students who seek to transfer into four-year colleges after completing their associate degrees at
These low degree completion rates have been widely discussed as a problem—not just in reaching President Obama’s goal but for the students who fall by the wayside, often with significant debt and no credential to show for their efforts, and for the nation, which would seem to be squandering its capital on educational programs that have poor rates of return. In 2009, the American Enterprise Institute issued a report, Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their students (and Which Don’t), which examined graduation rates at 1,300 institutions. AEI documented large disparities from “rock-bottom graduation numbers” (under 20 percent) at places such as Texas Southern University and
AEI took care at the time to say that low graduation rates are not necessarily bad. After all, they may reflect the interplay of high standards and mobile students. A newer AEI report, however, seems to take a different tack. In Rising to the Challenge: Hispanic College Graduation Rates as a National Priority, Andrew Kelly, Mark Schneider, and Kevin Carey promote the idea that federally designated Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs)—a designation needed to tap into federal Title V funds—should be judged not just on the percentage of Hispanics who enroll, but also on Hispanic completion rates.
AEI thus seems to be catching up to a great many other observers who look at the graduation rates with dismay. Last year the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with AT&T, Capital One, and NYSE Euronext launched a project called “Get Schooled” that aims to put more children on track to complete high school and college.
A research paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research registered the national decline in college completion rates from the 1970s to the 1990s. A higher percentage of high school graduates enrolled in college, but the influx in enrollments was accompanied by a rapid increase in college dropouts. Common sense suggests that the increase in students who start college includes many who aren’t academically prepared or sufficiently talented to succeed. The authors of the NBER report agree this is a factor, but also blame the colleges—particularly community colleges and less-selective public four-year institutions.
In April, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) took up the challenge. With help again from the Gates Foundation, ACCT partnered with the
Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, spoke at the “
In short, the theme of increasing college completion rates is attracting lots of attention these days.
The streamlining of general education requirements at the
Possibly it was time for the university to take another look at its graduation requirements, but we think ACTA has made a pretty good point.
However, we also see this degree deflation as part of the much larger story. Since World War II, American higher education has been on the path towards becoming a form of low-standard mass-credentialing. The world of colleges and universities retains a narrow band of highly-selective, curricularly-demanding institutions, but these account for a few tens of thousands of the more than 18 million students who enroll each year. The institutions that serve the great majority of students tend to be much more concerned with quantity than quality. Indeed, there are many excellent programs to be found in state institutions and not-especially-distinguished private colleges. But on the whole they are shaped by the realities of public policy, the existing structures of higher education finance, and the public belief that a college degree is a prerequisite for a decent job.
These factors work together to exert a downward force on academic standards. When it comes to a choice between sticking with tough standards and marketing to less talented students, American higher education has a hard time remembering why those standards really matter. In that light, the
We are entering a period in which this long historical trend looks as if it is about to reach its culminating phase. If President Obama, the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the numerous eager government officials, corporate leaders, and non-profit advocates have their way, higher education will have to shed what little it has left of its commitment to high academic standards. Of course, the advocates of send-nearly-everyone to college deny this. President Obama has as one of his standard tropes, a warning against “false choices.” But can we have academic excellence and mass production of college graduates at the same time?
We don’t think that’s a “false choice.” It is a real choice. Perhaps there is a good argument for the mass production side—though it is very hard to hear anyone actually making it. Instead we are incessantly reminded that individuals who earn a college degree on average earn a lot more money than those whose education falls short of this benchmark, and that national competitiveness increasingly depends on our having a highly educated workforce. These are both non sequiturs. Individuals who are knowledgeable, well-educated, and personally disciplined often excel and nations need their talents, but those attainments aren’t contained in a college degree.
Despite the loud proclamations in favor of mass higher education, Americans are becoming increasingly skeptical that college-for-everyone is the answer. Last week, the skepticism achieved a benchmark of its own, when Jacques Steinberg presented a front-page New York Times story, Plan B: Skip College, which gave serious attention to some of the dissenters. Perhaps the reality of the situation is beginning to seep into our national consciousness. College may not be the best answer for every ambitious teenager and higher attendance and completion rates may not be the panacea for an ailing economy. A nation that piles on years of expensive remedial work to the time already forfeited to ineffective K-12 education is a nation digging itself further into a hole.