Students & Parents | General Education

Are Colleges “Failure Factories”?

MINDING THE CAMPUS   |  November 5, 2008 by Richard Vedder

Former Commissioner of Education Statistics Mark Schneider has caused a bit of a stir with a paper in which he argues that colleges are getting a free pass on a huge problem—a very high drop-out rate. Our colleges are failure factories for literally millions of students, Schneider says, and I agree.

To be sure, our statistics on college dropouts are imperfect. Students move from full to part-time status, or change schools, and sometimes get measured as drop-outs when in fact they succeed. The reality is, however, that over half of students entering four year colleges and universities do not graduate within the advertised four year curriculum, and roughly one-third do not graduate within eight years even using better measures of dropping out.

I think there are four major reasons for this. First, of course, there is a small proportion that drop out because of adverse family circumstances that force them into the full-time work force or into caring for relatives. While some claim this is an enormous problem, the vast amount of student loans available has reduced the number of students who drop out for strictly financial reasons. Second, there is more than a grain of truth to the collegiate lament that high school graduates are often ill-prepared, with mediocre qualifications in such basic areas as writing, civic knowledge and math skills. Anyone who has looked at results of the NAEP or TIMSS tests knows that Americans on average graduate from high school with at best a shoddy intellectual base.

But most of the blame should fall on the colleges themselves. In order to appear sensitive to the provision of educational opportunities for all (positive interpretation) or in an effort to snare as much tuition and state appropriation money as possible (negative interpretation), schools take many students whose prospect for success can be reliably predicted to be extremely low before matriculation on the basis on test results and high school performance.

Lastly, at many schools, undergraduates are neglected. Academic advising on most colleges is a joke. Professors are rewarded for publishing, for winning grants, once and a while even for doing a decent job of teaching, but virtually never for spending time with undergraduate students in distress who simply need an objective and knowledgeable mature person to talk to and give advice. This is less true at some community colleges and spiffy private liberal arts colleges, but it holds true at most public four year schools.

All of this, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The “failure factory” label is deserved for reasons going beyond high dropout rates. Colleges have been very successful in preventing the general public from knowing what “value added” is created by a baccalaureate degree. Did Columbia have a good year last year? Who knows? Did seniors graduate with higher levels of basic knowledge, critical learning skills, or leadership attributes than they would have had if they had simply worked those four years? Do they even understand the difference between right and wrong better than they did four years earlier?

There are disconcerting bits of information that suggest that the gains from a college education are often embarrassingly few, even though the costs are clearly rising (a subject for another day). Attempts at measuring student core knowledge of our civic institutions, history, or economy by organizations like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni show abysmal results, with seniors performing only marginally better than freshmen. The National Assessment of Student Engagement results are often suppressed by individual schools, but national data show that students spend at best on average around 1,000 hours a year on academic pursuits—attending class, studying, writing papers, etc. That is half the work effort of their parents who are helping fund their education. It is not unusual for students to spend more hours partying than studying.

To be sure, colleges have a vocational function, and lots of competent engineers, scientists and accountants are turned out annually. And it is absolutely true that college graduates earn dramatically more on average than high school graduates, suggesting they are far more productive in the world of work. But as Charles Murray and others have shown, the cohort of college graduates on average has far more innate cognitive skills, motivation, work discipline and other desirable character traits than the cohort of high school graduates. Considering this, it is not altogether clear that from the standpoint of society, the gains from a college education on average exceed the costs, studies by university-employed economists notwithstanding.

And, increasingly, universities are not particularly good at even achieving their vocational mission. First, of course, remember the one-third to one-half of students who drop-out but who typically incur large debts. They end up only marginally more employable than before, but with battered personal finances. Second, a growing number of college graduates are taking relatively unskilled blue collar jobs, a point brought home to me recently when two workers were cutting down a diseased tree on my land, one with a eighth grade education and the second an honors graduate of Ohio University. There are over 15,000 hairdressers in the U.S. with advanced or professional degrees, and 12 percent of our mail carriers have college degrees (compared with three percent in 1970). Is it worthwhile to spend tens of thousands of dollars training students unnecessarily (from a vocational perspective)? For what purpose?

University presidents constantly complain that legislators are short-sighted, restricting state appropriations or federal research monies . State higher education appropriations are a declining proportion of most state budgets. Is this an irrational response, insufficiently investing in our nation’s future? Or, given the evidence that the “failure factories” are often very real, is it a highly rational response, reflecting a healthy skepticism on the true return in investment in higher education?


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