Thursday, November 17, 2005

Increasing College Enrollment -- good or bad?

This is a follow-up to my post last week about Mary Catherine Swanson's Ed Week article on saving the middle quartiles of students. Her AVID program, I noted, had helped many bright but underachieving students go to college. Interestingly enough, the major education news this week is about kids going to college, then not graduating (see the AP story, "Focus On Getting Students Into College Shifts to Getting Them Out").

A recent study found that only 54% of students entering four-year colleges in 1997 (my cohort) had a degree 6 years later. This is a problem because higher education has a huge degree effect in terms of boosted job opportunities and income. Quitting a 4-year college after 2 years is not the same as getting a two-year associates degree. Indeed, if you borrow money to attend the 4-year school, you might wind up worse off.

Former Princeton president William Bowen has announced he'll be studying this reality, which is why the subject made headlines. He points out that at comparably prestigious state schools such as the University of Minnesota and Penn State, graduation rates vary widely. At Penn State, about 80% of students graduate in 6 years; at U-Minn it's about half.

Clearly, colleges have some effect on the matter. They can make signing up for necessary classes easier. They can encourage advisors to be more pro-active about pushing students to fulfill requirements. They can boost financial aid so students don't drop out for monetary reasons.

But they shouldn't dumb down their classes and make it easier to earn a degree. Already there's been a disturbing trend toward grade inflation and remedial classes at universities. More of the same will just dilute the value of a 4-year degree. Education experts often say that a college graduate earns $1 million more over her life than a non-graduate, but the premium is falling as more people pour into college. Unfortunately, if this continues, people will spend many years and much money chasing degrees they might not get and that could be devalued anyway.

So what's to be done? First, education leaders need to stop pushing 4-year degrees as a universal solution when most students lack the foundation. A full 66.7% of 2004 high school graduates enrolled in college that year, but one 2002 study found only 34% of high school students were "prepared" for college. So no wonder only 54% graduate. 34% is just about 54% of 66.7%...

More students should certainly be challenged to build that foundation. I've often complained about a 10th grade English class I took where all that was expected of students was the ability to read from a book outloud and answer trivia questions. This was a class for college-bound students. No wonder reality often hurts when it hits in college classes requiring in-depth analysis of literature, papers advancing new theses, etc.

But higher standards is a long-term solution. In the interim, two-year colleges need to promote themselves better. They are not about "settling" -- these degrees vastly boost job prospects and income levels. Local businesses should apprentice high school students and ease them through 1-2 years of post graduation training and into work. Schools should push vocational education more. Some very skilled trades require college degrees, but others don't. As anyone who's called a plumber knows, they make a lot more money than your average college drop-out.

No comments: