College Fail? (Who is to blame for low college graduation rates?)

In a recent article in The New York Times, David Leonhardt explores the premises of a new book called, Crossing the Finish Line, a text in which the authors, economists William Bowen and Michael McPherson (both of whom are former university presidents), focus on what they see as U.S. colleges’ dismal graduation rates.

The percentage of Americans with a college degree continues to hover around thirty percent–close to one third of the population; it’s a percentage that, according to Bowen and Mcpherson, could and should be much higher.  Leonhardt readily accepts this premise and makes it clear that it is high time that colleges be “held to account for their failures,” failures that are a product of an environment that, according to Leonhardt “[focuses] on enrollment rather than completion.”  In other words, our colleges and universities spend more time wooing prospective students than they do ensuring the success of the ones they’ve already coaxed onto their campuses.

It’s a tantalizing argument: focus on increasing student retention, especially at our four-year universities, and more people will finish school and thereby contribute more to the society in which we all live.  As Leonhardt contends, “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.”  If we improve our college graduation rates, he further implies, we will enjoy greater equality and greater productivity as a nation.  So if these are the benefits that await us, why wouldn’t we want to fix our institutions of higher learning by demanding that they increase student success?

But, of course, the students entering our colleges had to come from somewhere; they were not born on our doorstep, and Leonhardt acknowledges that “inadequate precollege education is a problem” when it comes to ensuring that those who enter college leave with a degree.  But, he goes on to say that, “high schools still produce many students who have the skills to complete college and yet fail to do so,” which leads Leonhardt to conclude that “Turning [these students] into college graduates should be a lot less difficult than fixing all of American education.”

Unfortunately, though, if we want to improve our colleges, we must also commit ourselves to “fixing all of American education,” and because our “precollege education” system does not exist in a vacuum, then we must also look at the societal structures that influence what our students learn and how much of it they retain in their K-12 years.  Leonhardt uses the analogy of health care reform, noting that when we pay doctors per procedure, we get more care, but not necessarily better care.  He feels the same problem exists in our colleges: instead of paying per student enrolled, we should be paying for the percentage of students the college graduates.  But if we applied similar logic to his assertion that we could fix our colleges without “fixing the whole of American education,” doing so would be akin to telling someone that preventative care–including eating right, exercising, and annual checkups–is not necessary; we can just medicate you later in your old age–that is, if you should actually even make it to old age after years of neglecting your health.

If we acknowledge that our country’s “precollege education” system is increasingly graduating students who are not yet academically ready for their college freshmen year, then we need to take that fact into account when we wonder, as Mr. Leonhardt does, “What if a college announced that it was going to redirect its resources toward students who remained on track to graduate in four or, at most, five years? It would offer intensive remedial education for those who needed it.”

First, Mr. Leonhardt should know that many schools already do this, including the school where I teach, a public university in California. We do offer “intensive remedial education” to those students who test below freshman level in English and math.  In California, close to 60% of incoming college freshmen require remediation in one or both of these subjects, but what the numbers don’t reveal, what people don’t understand unless they’ve taught these courses, is that this education, particularly in the lowest level of remediation, is being provided to students who, in many cases, are reading at a seventh grade level, and sometimes even below that. In the remedial courses, the students are given a lot of support: regular on-campus tutoring, frequent meeting time with instructors, extra class time to complete the work. In my department (English), our lowest level remedial course is two semesters in length, so these resources are provided to the students in the class for their entire freshman year.

But guess what? It turns out, it’s hard for someone who comes into college reading at a seventh grade level to be ready for sophomore college classes (which he or she will be taking after completing the year-long remedial course) in just one academic year. A few will make great strides, for sure. But many will get side-tracked–by pregnancy, by family obligations, by a continued inability to understand the material, or even by a sheer lack of interest in collegiate study. Hence, even with all of the extra support, many of our students cannot ignore the circumstances that landed them in remedial classes in the first place: poor education in the K-12 years, or an inability to make use of a good education in the K-12 years because of race or class discrimination, family constraints, or even an undiagnosed learning disability.

Meanwhile, as Leonhardt explains, the more selective colleges have a far higher graduation rate than less elite schools.  This information should come as no surprise–not only are students who did the work to get into a more selective college usually more committed to finishing their degree, but often they are also more prepared than those who get into less selective schools. I would hope that the question many people are asking themselves if they are reading this is, “How is someone who reads at a seventh grade level getting into college in the first place?” It’s a valid question; and we shouldn’t be surprised that colleges that are allowing students in who are not prepared for the work or the independence or the maturity that college demands are the same colleges who graduate fewer students than those schools that have incredibly demanding admission standards.  At the same time, we should ask how someone is able to graduate from high school if he or she is only reading at a seventh grade level.

Meanwhile, even if Mr. Leonhardt were right, that we could somehow improve our colleges without “fixing the whole of American education,” institutions still need money in order to implement the changes (greater access to tutoring and other such support) that Mr. Leonhardt feels many of our institutions of higher education currently lack. My campus is a public university; we depend on funding from the state, a state that came very close to filing for bankruptcy this year. Many other states–if not as much of a financial train wreck as California–are also suffering in the recession. So, like the university where I teach, many of these colleges that Mr. Leonhardt thinks need to step up their game are floundering as they try to remain solvent in the face of major cuts in funding. In my university system, faculty and staff are on furlough, something we agreed to in hopes of avoiding layoffs and thereby continuing to provide classes to as many students who want an education as possible.

But there’s the rub…many students don’t want it. Or they don’t know if they do. Or they think they do, but that’s because someone else (parents, friends, or teachers) have told them they want it–or that they should want it. Many students may still want an education, but even after a year of intensive remediation, many will not have acquired the reading and writing skills necessary to be successful in college, and even these students who do acquire the skills may still have trouble silencing the voices that tell them they aren’t “college material.” You might think these voices are those of gatekeeper-type teachers and administrators, but often these voices are from family members, particularly those who feel threatened by a separation they imagine a college education will wedge between them and their daughter, son, sister, brother, cousin.

And so, the numbers of how many people we graduate from college are not a comment only on the universities themselves and how good a “job” they are or aren’t doing. Instead, as with most things, what the numbers represent is something far more complicated: underneath those percentages are our attitudes toward race, class, school, work, the “purpose” of an education, and the meaning of social status and how one attains it–in short, all of the ideas and attitudes students encounter before they even set foot on a college campus.

Our leaders are often fond of treating problems as though they are ailments in a body: if someone has a sick liver, a doctor treats the liver. We often try to do the same thing when we see problems in our social institutions, but those problems are more analogous to a patient who has a diseased liver as a result of alcoholism: there is no point in providing a liver transplant if the recipient has not been able to stop drinking. By the same token, unless we look at–and really try to change–the social problems that so often determine who is successful in the K-12 years and who isn’t, we won’t do much to improve college graduation rates in the long term. Of course, it’s easier to get a book published if the premise reduces complicated problems to seemingly simple solutions, particularly if there’s a clear “villain” to blame (in this case, colleges with lower graduation rates).  It might feel good for readers to think, “Yeah–when will our colleges get serious about helping students graduate?” but that will do nothing toward actually ensuring that even twice as many people–let alone “everyone”–in our society reach their full potential, whether that potential includes a college degree or something else.

For only in the rarest cases can four years of college undo and ameliorate thirteen years of intellectual neglect.  We can point fingers at high school teachers, who can in turn call out the middle school teachers, who can then place blame on those in elementary ed., but the truth is that every one of us who has young people in our lives–a student, a son, a niece or a nephew–is a point of contact for those children during their formative years; we should be noticing their troubles and addressing them before they become the circumstances that will hold them back in college and in life–because, while we might all want for more of our students to be “Crossing the Finish Line,” they must first be in shape to enter the race.


About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
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One Response to College Fail? (Who is to blame for low college graduation rates?)

  1. Pingback: Schooled by the L.A. Times: The good, the bad, and the ugly of ‘Who’s teaching L.A.’s Kids?’ « Verbal Cupcake

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