The United States does a good job enrolling teenagers in college, but only half of students who enroll end up with a bachelor’s degree. Among rich countries, only Italy is worse. That’s a big reason inequality has soared, and productivity growth has slowed. Economic growth in this decade was on pace to be slower than in any decade since World War II — even before the financial crisis started.
So identifying the causes of the college dropout crisis matters enormously, and a new book tries to do precisely that.
Yes, what could possibly be the source of the dropout crisis?
Yes, inadequate precollege education is a problem. But high schools still produce many students who have the skills to complete college and yet fail to do so. Turning them into college graduates should be a lot less difficult than fixing all of American education.
“We could be doing a lot better with college completion just by working on our colleges,” as Robert Shireman, an Education Department official who has read an early version of the book, says.
So what problems are there that schools could solve?
The first problem that Mr. Bowen, Mr. McPherson and the book’s third author, Matthew Chingos, a doctoral candidate, diagnose is something they call under-matching. It refers to students who choose not to attend the best college they can get into. They instead go to a less selective one, perhaps one that’s closer to home or, given the torturous financial aid process, less expensive.
Let's see if I have this right: a student goes to a less rigorous school than he could have, and a student doesn't mortgage her future to the hilt! These are the sources of dropouts?
In effect, well-off students — many of whom will graduate no matter where they go — attend the colleges that do the best job of producing graduates. These are the places where many students live on campus (which raises graduation rates) and graduation is the norm. Meanwhile, lower-income students — even when they are better qualified — often go to colleges that excel in producing dropouts.
“It’s really a waste,” Mr. Bowen says, “and a big problem for the country.”
This is as close as the author gets to an answer to why undermatching is bad: attending an under performing school, as defined by low graduation rates, because those schools produce more dropouts!
Of course, he implies something more: if the student just went to a college that does a GOOD job of producing graduates, why, they would be more likely to graduate. Culture is king, no?
But such an argument is just the college version of the old busing argument: black kid can't read? Sit her next to a white kid who can! That'll teach her!
Is that what the authors meant? Don't look to the article to clarify.
The article does mention one other source of high dropout rate: a lack of incentive by students to bother to graduate.
Failure has become acceptable. Students see no need to graduate in four years. Doing so, as one told the book’s authors, is “like leaving the party at 10:30 p.m.” Graduation delayed often becomes graduation denied.
Actually, this is a point against the interest of the authors'. does it really mean graduation is denied? Or is it a statistical quirk caused by counting only 6 years after entrance? A useful data point would be the distinction between students still in school after 6 years and those no longer working on a degree. Likewise, what are the incomes of the students at the point of departure from school?
But the original premise that students who have the skills to complete college are not doing so remains unsupported. Is it true, or is it just that we will think and do anything to avoid confronting the disaster that is K-12?