By DAVID KIRP
Higher education is billed as the ticket into America’s middle class. That’s true for students who actually earn a degree. The average lifetime earnings for those with a bachelor’s will be nearly $1 million more than those with only a high-school diploma, and the gap keeps widening as more employers demand a university credential.
But the contention that college is the engine of social mobility is false advertising for the 34 million Americans over 25 — that’s more than 10 percent of the entire U.S. population — who have some college credits but dropped out before receiving a diploma. Many of them are actually worse off economically than if they hadn’t started college. While they earn a little more than those who never went beyond high school, they leave college with a pile of debt but without the chance to secure the high-paying jobs to pay it off that a degree would open up. Dropouts are nearly twice as likely as college grads to be unemployed, and they are four times more likely to default on student loans, thus wrecking their credit and shrinking their career options.
The American Institutes for Research calculates that the cost of dropping out, measured by lost earnings, is $3.8 billion, and that’s just for a single year and a single class of students. But dollars-and-cents calculations tell only a fraction of the story. A college education gives students the intellectual capital to tackle high-skill jobs, as well as the social capital to make the connections and build the networks that can lead to success. An Associated Press article by Christopher S. Rugaber points out that as income disparity widens, “it is doing so in ways that go beyond income, from homeownership to marriage to retirement. Education has become a dividing line that affects how Americans vote, the likelihood that they will own a home and their geographic mobility.” As The Chronicle has shown, educational disparities even affect public health.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, fewer than 60 percent of college freshmen graduate in six years, two years beyond what is considered “on time,” and that rate has barely changed during the past decade. Community-college students are meant to earn an associate degree in two years, but even after having been in school for six years, fewer than 40 percent have graduated. The United States ranks 19th in graduation rates among the 28 countries studied by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, putting the country on a par with Lithuania and Slovenia.
Statistics can be numbing, the stuff of policy wonkery, but bear with me — the deeper you dive into these numbers, the bleaker the picture that emerges. Public universities graduate a little over half their students; roughly a quarter of those who enroll in for-profits earn a bachelor’s degree. If these institutions were held to the same standard as our high schools, 85 percent of them would be branded dropout factories.
Some students leave school because of money woes, and others realize that college isn’t right for them. But many depart because the institution hasn’t given them the we-have-your-back support they need.
The fact that 40 percent of college freshmen never make it to commencement is higher education’s dirty little secret, a dereliction of duty that has gotten too little public attention. In Academically Adrift(University of Chicago Press, 2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa surveyed more than 2,300 students and discovered widespread disaffection with colleges and inattention to academics. The typical student, they reported, studied far less than students in the early 1960s.
Strikingly, the universities didn’t seem to care. “Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.” The priority for many college presidents is getting freshmen in the door and tuition dollars in the bank. Meanwhile, professors go about their business, inattentive to the problem — ask most professors about how many students depart their institution and you’re likely to get puzzled looks and an off-the-mark guesstimate.
No one is held accountable for this sorry state of affairs. Nobody gets fired because students are dropping out.
A growing number of states have tied funding to graduation rates. Though this pressure tactic is tempting to politicians, such financial incentives are blunt policy instruments that may backfire, making it harder for needy students to get admitted to college because they are worse bets to graduate. A Century Foundation reportargues that focusing entirely on outcomes reinforces disparities between institutional haves and have-nots, while failing to move the needle on completion. As The Washington Post summarized, “Students can be derailed from graduating for many different reasons, including a lack of academic preparation or money. Colleges with ample resources can readily address those needs to raise graduation rates, but schools with limited means often struggle.”
“We have met the enemy and he is us”: Pogo’s immortal line is dead on. Universities are not powerless to change this situation, but many of them take a hands-off approach. Administrators and professors who cling to the raft of high standards and low expectations contend that these students have had their chance. They’ve blown it — case closed. As one vice president for university engagement put it, “Our job is to give you an opportunity; your job is to take advantage of it. If you don’t, oh, well.”
“Give us better students and we’ll graduate more of them,” the apologists cry, but that excuse doesn’t wash. The graduation rate at universities whose students look alike on paper varies by as many as 20 percentage points. To take one example, Washington Monthly reported in 2010 that about 13 percent of Chicago State University’s students graduate compared with roughly 50 percent of those at North Carolina Central University. The institutions enroll students with similar academic credentials.
Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds have the most to gain from a college degree. The Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Opportunity Insights group identified a handful of universities, among them the City University of New York, California State University at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at El Paso, that are making good on the pledge of economic mobility, catapulting students from poor families into the middle class. But these universities are the decided exceptions. Here’s a set-your-hair-on-fire statistic: According to an estimate from the University of Pennsylvania’s Pell Institute, in 2017 students whose families were in the top income quartile were 4.8 times more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24 than were students whose families were in the bottom quartile. Higher education doesn’t simply maintain social-class distinctions. It widens the chasm between rich and poor.
Roughly a third of undergraduates are the first in their family to go to college. Unlike their middle-class classmates, there’s no one they can rely on to explain how to cope with the stresses of college life. They would benefit greatly if their professors, counselors, and advisers were easy to reach, as they are at elite colleges, but on most campuses this kind of mentoring is a luxury. Advisers rank near the bottom on most universities’ priority list — at big public universities, an adviser may be assigned upward of 1,000 students, and individual students become merely statistical artifacts. This inattention may help to explain why white students graduate at a rate 10 percentage points higher than Latinos, and 20 percentage points higher than black students.
The Education Trust, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., flagged 18 institutions where black students graduate at much higher rates than they do at peer-level colleges. For instance, the SAT scores of undergraduates at the University of California at Riverside are roughly the same as those of students at the University of Illinois at Chicago, yet 30 percent fewer black students earn a bachelor’s degree at UIC.
Recipients of Pell Grants, the federal financial-aid program for students from poor and working-class families — a third of the college population — also fare badly. Their six-year graduation rate is lower than that of students who aren’t getting this subsidy. As with overall graduation rates, there’s a yawning gap between the best- and worst-performing colleges. A 2017 Brookings Institution reportidentifies 14 universities, among them the University of Massachusetts at Boston and CUNY’s York College, where the graduation rate for Pell recipients is higher than for non-Pell students. At the other end of the spectrum, the same report fingers the University of Akron for a hall-of-shame award. There, 9 percent of Pell Grant recipients graduate in six years (you read that number right), versus 70 percent of the rest of the students.
Over four out of ten college freshmen do not graduate within six years.
For just a single year and a single class of students, that’s estimated to be $3.8 billion in lost earnings.
Data is from The American Institutes for Research. Icons are from ProPublica’s Weepeople font
Solutions to the dropout crisis need not be so fanciful, for every college administrator with a pulse knows the tools that have been proven to remedy the dropout problem. They don’t cost a fortune and they don’t require a genius to make them work.
Here’s the in-a-nutshell summary:
Information that identifies top-flight colleges that talented students from poor families didn’t realize were within reach helps them make better choices.
Text-message nudges prod students into starting, and staying in, college.
Data analytics can be used to anticipate which freshmen are likely to need help, enabling advisers to corral them before their problems ripen into crises.
Brief experiences, rooted in psychological insight, which promote a sense of belonging and a growth mind-set, make students more resilient when confronted with the predictable setbacks of undergraduate life.
Revamping make-or-break classes: Remedial courses in math, reading, and writing — the downfall for millions of students — substantially lower the number of failing grades.
Building connections across the community: Designated pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions give students in two-year colleges a direct route to a bachelor’s degree — a clear incentive to pursue their education — as well as providing universities with well-prepared upperclassmen.
These strategies work for one basic reason. They enable students to recognize that they are full-fledged members of a community that takes them seriously as individuals rather than as members of an impersonal bureaucracy that batch-processes them like Perdue chickens.
During campus visits I asked students why they were enthusiastic about their college. I kept hearing the same answer — they have our back.
For more than half a century, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has surveyed more than 15 million students at some 1,900 colleges. The bottom line: “The more students are academically and socially engaged with other people on campus … the more likely (other things being equal) they will stay and graduate from college.” A recent study of nearly 7,000 students on 34 campuses reached the same conclusion. “Students’ perceptions of the degree to which the institution was supportive of their academic, personal, and social needs were the most powerful predictor … of increased academic competence.”
In short, the more students believe that they belong, the better they do academically. The reverse is also true — without this kind of engagement, “the social isolation and loneliness that follow often lead to withdrawal.”
As an article in the journal New Directions For Higher Education put it: “A revolution appears to be sweeping the campuses of the nation’s colleges and universities, and it is based on a simple credo: The success of an institution and the success of its students are inseparable.” It is sad, and telling, that three professors who have spent their careers studying the doings of universities believe that putting students first is a revolutionary idea.
Unfortunately, they’re right. Some universities have made the changes necessary to turn this credo into reality. There, more students are graduating, and the graduation gap is closing or has disappeared entirely. But making significant changes, like revamping big-enrollment courses or investing heavily in just-in-time advising, demands a leader with the courage to act, as well as the talent to create a compelling vision and develop a sense of urgency among campus constituents. Leaders like this are in short supply.
College presidents aren’t generally known for their bravery. Instead, they wax eloquent about the imperative of student success; or invoke buzzwords, as if rhetoric could substitute for action; or fantasize about quick fixes; or launch ill-considered pilot projects; or gather mountains of data that sit unused.
“I’m appalled that so many universities continue to engage in practices known to be, at best, modestly effective,” Mark Becker, president of Georgia State, tells me, and when nothing comes of those efforts, the administrators blame the tools, not themselves. They are driven by the desire to enhance their institution’s prestige, as defined by its standing in the U.S. News pecking order. This fixation on status explains why scholarships are increasingly awarded on the basis of students’ academic credentials, not their financial need.
A college president has many competing priorities — raising money, placating lawmakers, wooing donors, managing crises, and the like — and rarely does the dropout problem make the cut. “Few institutions take student retention seriously,” says the Syracuse emeritus professor Vincent Tinto, the author of Completing College (University of Chicago Press, 2012). “Most treat it as one more item to add to the list of issues to be addressed.”
“We’re convinced that serving underserved students is an important thing to push out into the higher-education world,” Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, asserts. You might think Crow was stating the obvious, since higher education is sold as the glide path to the middle class, but this is not how most colleges operate. “The graduation rate is something we can have a tremendous amount of influence over, and we had to make a conscious decision to do this.”
“Give us better students and we’ll graduate more of them,” the apologists cry. That excuse doesn’t wash.
The status quo exerts a mighty appeal, and the prospect of doing things differently invariably brings opponents out of the woodwork. “There’s no reason to expect presidents to be change agents,” Josh Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, points out, “especially if that change is risky and not necessary to preserve the ‘quality’ of their institutions, measured by traditional definitions of enrollment, buildings, and prestige.”
When I asked Timothy M. Renick, the student-success czar at Georgia State, whether institutional inertia explains why so many universities weren’t tackling the dropout problem, he replied:
“It is more than inertia — it is structural. I visit lots of campuses. They invite me because they see the changes made at Georgia State and want similar successes. But when I get to campus and explain how we centralized advising, to make it better, I hear they could never do that because the Dean of X wouldn’t support it, and the Dean of X is supported by the trustees. When I talk about junking lectures in math, and making the courses more interactive, I hear that the faculty senate would never go against the chair of math to enact such changes.”
Yet unless university leaders are up for the challenge — unless they regard student success not as a risky business but as a moral imperative — the dropout problem won’t be solved. “It’s almost as if students require a lottery-esque winning ticket to have a better shot at succeeding in college,” says Brad Phillips, president of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change. “What would it look like if colleges made a real commitment to scale a few, high-impact, research-based programs?”
The six strategies that I summarized offer a solid starting point for a university that’s determined to keep its students in school, but there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. The logjams that undergraduates encounter on their way to graduation — the courses they need for their major but can’t get into, the bureaucratic rigmarole they encounter, the bottomless pit of remedial math into which they slip — must be identified before solutions can emerge, and these vary from college to college. A university’s culture — its shared values, history, and identity — exerts a powerful force. Budgetary realities affect what’s doable.
At the annual meeting of the American Council on Education a few years back, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the longtime president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, exhorted his colleagues not to adopt a “what can you expect?” attitude toward poor and minority students but instead to focus on “what they can become.” Hrabowski’s deeds match his words — UMBC produces more black bachelor’s-degree recipients who go on to complete M.D.-Ph.D.s than any other college in the country.
Though a handful of hypercompetitive colleges like Amherst and Vassar have made a point of admitting more poor and working-class students, their efforts are just a thimbleful in the ocean of need. And among the elite institutions, these are rarities. Here’s another “you’ve got to be kidding” fact: at 38 elite colleges, including five in the Ivy League — Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown — more students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.
It’s at the outsized state universities and community colleges, the mass-education institutions that educate nearly 80 percent of undergraduates, where the dropout problem is most severe and where the need for action is greatest. Some are responding admirably. Consider the University of Central Florida, one of the largest public institutions in the country, which justifiably refers to itself as the best university no one has heard of; or its neighbor, Valencia College, which the Aspen Institute namedthe nation’s top community college, where the quality of teaching rivals that of any institution; or California State University at Long Beach, which must be doing something right, since it receives more than twice as many applicants as Harvard.
At these universities and others like them, Hrabowski’s admonition embodies the implicit mission statement. These colleges tailor the known-to-work strategies to fit their circumstances, while including home-grown ideas in their bag of tricks. Each takes a somewhat different approach to engaging its students, and it’s these differences — variations on the theme of promoting students’ sense of belonging — that we should focus on. By demonstrating what can be accomplished without making a herculean effort, or having Hercules at the helm, their successes should prod institutions with scandalous track records into action.
David Kirp is a professor in the Graduate School at the University of California at Berkeley and a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times. This essay is excerpted from his new book, The College Dropout Scandal (Oxford University Press).