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Tip-Toeing Through A Debacle In Post-High School Education

Richard Harwood The Washington Post

Higher education occupies an important and expanding role in the life of the United States. As a major component in our third-largest industry - educational services - it generates revenues approaching $200 billion a year and supports a labor force of about 2 million people. More students (15 million plus) are enrolled in the system than in our high schools (about 12 million).

We rely on this system to produce our scientists, health care professionals, financial analysts, cultural custodians, business managers, teachers, lawyers, engineers and humanists.

Students rely on it, most of all, to supply credentials that open doors labeled “success” and “affluence” in American life; three-fourths of our students say they are in college to “be able to get a better job” and “to be able to make more money.”

Given our expectations about higher education, it is surprising that the media pay so little attention to it. It produces, of course, a tremendous volume of news dealing with the activities of 13,000 or so scholarship students: the varsity athletes attending the 306 big sports schools in Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The media’s interests are also aroused from time to time by tales of conflict - the efforts, for example, of women to enroll at the Citadel and Virginia Military Institute. The ups and downs of the Scholastic Assessment Tests usually get media attention, too.

But overall, coverage is limited in comparison with the attention paid to political campaigns, general government affairs, Social Security, financial markets, television and the world of entertainment.

The Post published recently a fascinating story about concern at Georgetown University over the low graduation rate of its male basketball players. This subject crops up periodically across the country: the idea that athletes are being recruited who really don’t belong in college because of limited academic interests or abilities. That is undoubtedly true in some cases. But Division 1 athletes as a class are more likely to get their degrees than nonathletes.

The numbers make it obvious that the story here is not whether a handful of basketball players is out of place in the classroom, but whether millions of other college students are in the same boat.

I suspect that we would proclaim a national scandal if high school dropout rates, presently about 10 percent, were anywhere near as high as what colleges and universities routinely tolerate and report.

The odds that a college freshman at a Division 1 school will graduate within six years are little better than 50-50. The composite rate is 56 percent, but 130-odd schools fail to graduate more than half of their enrollees.

At dozens of these schools, dropout and failure rates are far higher, reaching in the most extreme case more than 90 percent at Northeastern Illinois University. The dropout-failure rate at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock is 82 percent, at Chicago State University, 84 percent and at Texas Southern University, 88 percent. At more than 20 schools, between 70 percent and 80 percent of students fail to graduate within six years. These schools include the University of Louisville, the University of Maryland (Eastern Shore), Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey, Long Island University’s Brooklyn Center, the universities of New Orleans, Northeast, Northwestern and Southeastern Louisiana, the University of California at Long Beach, Cleveland State and four branches of the University of Texas.

These statistics are supplied by the Division 1 schools and are published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Graduation rates for smaller colleges and universities are not included in the survey but are assumed to be comparable.

American College Testing (ACT), according to Rochelle Stanfield of the National Journal, reported that in 1996, “27 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions failed to return for their sophomore year, the highest attrition rate in the 13-year history of its survey. At two-year institutions, 44 percent dropped out. … (ACT) calculates that only 45 percent of the students who graduated from high school in 1982 and earned at least 10 college credits had received a bachelor’s degree by the time they were 30 years old.”

These attrition rates are likely to trouble those who believe a college diploma is an essential for success.

But that is not a universal view. Stanfield recently collected dissenting opinions that add up to the conclusion that people are not equally equipped to deal with college life and that they do not benefit equally from the possession of college degrees.

Former labor secretary Robert Reich told Stanfield that “far too many young people … are finding that what they’re being trained for in college has little or no relevance to getting a good job.” That’s one factor in the high dropout rate. Another factor is the high cost of a college education and the accumulation of debt in the course of paying for it.

The “mythology” - Reich’s word - that a diploma equals economic success produces college enrollees who may have neither the academic aptitude nor the interest required for a degree.

Robert Reischauer of the Brookings Institution wonders if job success is the result of what colleges are “filling these empty young minds with” or the result of the “inherent ability (college graduates) are bringing to their jobs? It’s probably more of the latter than the former.”

Many students leave high school unprepared for college or the labor market. They are more or less forced into college to satisfy employers who, according to Frank Levy of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, have a need for “numerate-literate kids, but they can’t trust a high school diploma to mean anything on those grounds.” Today, 80 percent of the colleges accepting freshmen offer remedial courses, and a third of freshmen take at least one such course.

The debate about the conventional wisdom that “everyone should go to college” is not one the press has explored with any degree of thoroughness. It runs counter to egalitarian assumptions about our society and is therefore hard to handle. But the high dropout rates colleges are reporting deserve attention.

It’s a problem that’s not going away and one that won’t be solved by crackdowns on basketball players.


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