While it's become an article of public faith that almost all high school graduates should go to college -- because a college degree is critical in a knowledge economy -- it turns out that many colleges are doing a lousy job of helping their students finish. According to this article in USA Today about an AEI study, 4-year colleges in the US only graduate 53% of their students in 6 years. While people with "some college" often do better than those with just high school diplomas on the job market, the big payoffs come from the degree, which means that about half of people who start college will leave -- thanks to expensive tuition and loans -- perhaps no better than they started.
What's most fascinating about this is that some similar colleges do much better than others. As AEI and USA Today noted:
"•Among schools that require only a high school diploma for admission, Walla Walla University and Heritage University, both in Washington state, reported graduation rates of 53% and 17%, respectively.
•Among colleges that require high school grades averaging a B-minus or better, John Carroll University in Cleveland and Chicago State University in Illinois graduated 74% vs. 16%, respectively.
•In the "most competitive" group, Amherst College in Massachusetts and Reed College in Portland, Ore., graduated 96% vs. 76%, respectively."
These are not minor differences, and suggest that low graduation rates are not inevitable. They may also shed light on why some gifted students don't make it through college.
Over the years, I've talked to a number of grown-up gifted kids, who tend to have varying outcomes. Some, obviously, become smashingly successful. But for many, college seems to be a turning point. If students have coasted through high school, then the more difficult college curriculum can be unnerving. Being around other smart kids is often a relief for isolated gifted kids, but some perceive it as a challenge to their worldview. One young man once told me that the people around him didn't understand him -- and that was why he had to leave school. Add in the complexities of trying to afford college or get in the right classes, and graduation rates can coast down.
Since there are always going to be reasons not to follow through with something, this would suggest that as young people and their parents look for the right college, all things being equal, you should choose the one with the highest graduation rate. People respond to cues around them, and when almost everyone graduates, failing to do so becomes a less viable option.