Thursday, June 04, 2009

Why do gifted kids drop out of college?

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.


Cheryl said...

Or... Let me offer an alternative suggestion, as a former "gifted kid" from a family of former "gifted kids," most of whom didn't make it through college.

Many gifted, particularly creatively gifted, don't fit well in academia. Just making it through HS can be hell. But let's say you get yourself into college and start a course of study. Partway through something else sparks your attention, and you go pursue that instead. That's typical for a gifted person.

In my family, most of us didn't graduate from college. However, many have made our own way and are more financially successful than many college grads. As for me, I made substantially more money BEFORE I went back to school to finish my degree--I now teach for less than half of what I used to make.

Perhaps many gifted college students find that they are more content learning on their own than in the stifling halls of academia.

Anonymous said...

What role is social class playing in these numbers. The article compares graduation rates a John Carroll - $37,000 a year private Catholic college with minority enrollment of 9% to Chicago State a fairly low cost state university with 90% minority enrollment.

It makes sense students who do not have family financial support are more likely to drop out of college. It doesn't take a lot to imagine the many obstacles that may stand in the path of success for a student who may be the first one in their family to go to college.

Allen said...

I trust you & your readers have read the study, "A Nation Deceived." Their website has an incredible collection of anecdotes, many of which will directly address your question.

Short version for me -

Despite enrollment in complete gifted coursework (GATE 3rd-12th), I was rarely challenged and was permitted to completely coast through school.

Went to a UC campus and was thoroughly jarred by my total lack of preparedness. I had NEVER had to "study" at home during HS; it was a foreign concept. As such I was woefully ill-prepared for college-level coursework. Interestingly, I did excel in lit/writing/science, which were the only areas with challenging teachers in HS.

The lack of challenge in HS math crippled my desire for science, as I didn't have any real math instruction for the last 1.5 years of HS. That's a heck of a way to start a college career with a desired emphasis in science.

Dropped out after two quarters into freshman year. Have been self-employed ever since with reasonable success & considerable satisfaction. Not too many regrets.

I now have a child who, at age 8, makes me look "average" by comparison. She's already skipped one grade and could probably skip one or two more in most subjects.

My number one concern is that she be challenged throughout school by appropriate coursework. Challenged, without undue frustration. Teachers just want to give her more of the same to keep her busy. Argghh. That's not challenging - that is punishment.

Anonymous said...

How were transfers taken into account in these statistics?

vonlost said...

Reed, Swarthmore and UChicago are commonly considered to be the most difficult colleges, but higher numerical credentials are required to gain entrance to Amherst. So it seems natural that students with higher credentials and easier workloads would graduate at higher rates.

Anonymous said...

To those who dropped out:

What are you doing now and what steps did you take to get there?

Just a College Dropout said...

I recently decided to drop out of college to develop a lot of my passions and figure out which one will end up being my career, life ambition, or dream. I couldn't be happier with the decision and now that I have made it I feel like my creativity is no longer on the back burner. It is an excellent thing if you're certain you want to do it and have a bit of confidence about it.

Cheryl, I am glad to know that I am not alone. I am not lazy, but I have found that learning from class only makes up for a small fraction of what I learn. It seems opposite than most.

What a variety of people and ideas this world has to offer.

community college said...

I think if they are gifted kids then they will find their own ways and get succeed with out college education

Jennefer said...

I'm gifted, as is my father, and we both followed similar paths--dropping out of college and ending up (eventually) with high-paying careers. School felt like confinement to me. When I was younger, the social aspects were challenging. I was overly sensitive. I felt like I didn't fit in with my peers. However, years passed and I learned ways to relate to people.

Helpmeh7 said...

Im honestly thinking of dropping out of college myself. Not because the coursework is tough, but because I don't fit in. Also, im going to a school in the south and I don't feel like I will learn anything while im here. I feel as though I won't use my college education. Im ready to move on, but I don't know what to do because the community where I live is relatively "unsuccessful". Can show me where to begin? I know its foolish to drop out of college without a plan, but I can't hold on any longer. I feel as though im wasting my time.

Davidson Institute Staff said...

Dear Helpmeh7,

We would encourage you to discuss this decision with a person you trust (counselor/advisor/professor) to see if they have any suggestions or advice for a place that might be a better fit. You could also write a list of pros and cons to help you make this decision. You may also want to visit the free Princeton Review search engine called the Best Fit College Search that matches colleges with the personal criteria you enter:

Best of luck to you!
Davidson Institute Staff

Anonymous said...

I would like to leave a comment, being one the kids who was identified "gifted" in high school, and now being about to drop out of college after one semester.

I'm honestly not sure how I made it into the gifted program in high school, because I slacked like crazy. I was able to do the workload just fine, but I chose not to. And I'm finding that college isn't any different. I could, if I set my mind to it, do what the professors are asking. But I'm not. I just don't care enough.

The reason I'm slacking so much is that I can't stand sitting in classes. I need to be outside, working, doing something. I'm not happy just sitting around and studying.

I think that a lot of "gifted" students drop out for this same reason, but because of some standard that they have to uphold, or because they're too proud to admit it, they find other excuses.

Or, it could just be my twisted knowledge of the workings of peoples' minds. I'm not trying to make it sound like I know what's going on, just tossing another opinion out there. What do you guys think? Does it sound plausible?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to leave another comment saying that when I read through my last comment, I sounded kind of full of myself. That was NOT intended. I am not trying to put myself on any pedestals, I am simply trying to make a point. Please don't read any self-righteousness into anything I said.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous above, you're absolutely spot on.

I've dropped out of university twice now, (once in my third year, and this latest go around was after two months)

The classes/lectures are often simply bad, and even when they're not they rarely relate to anything of consequence. The assignments seem designed to consume as many student-hours as possible, and nothing more.

Add to these frustrations the massive opportunity cost in man hours and capital that universities represent and I just don't get it.

It's a tough call, but I'd say I was happier working as a construction labourer, at least then it wasn't all just wanking about.

I.D.'d gifted in elementary school.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymouses (anonymae?) above: I agree as well. I have actually done a bunch of work in college and am planning on graduating with mostly flying colors, but I am not planning to go on to graduate school, even though I would need to in my field, and I am in a good position to do so. I just find that most of the classes aren't that fulfilling, and I have all these projects which I want to work on, but I am too busy to pursue my passions...and yet my passions are too many and too diverse to put into one career. I also find that I have a hard time connecting with others, faculty as well as students. Most people are in organizations for the money or the prestige...and they mostly are stuck on following traditions, even if they are poorly structured protocols. When I try and change anything, or I don't place value on the things others do, I get a lot of social flack. I know that this kind of thing also happens in the work world, but if I go on to academia, I will have very few job options, have to rely heavily on networking skills (and social conformity), and I will have few other options if I drop out, as I will be much less employable with a higher degree. I think I would rather go seek my fortune in other less-consuming vocations which I can use to support myself while I pursue my passions. That way I still have more options, and I can find other people with whom I connect.

Anonymous said...

I was a "C" student in high school with no other gift i.e. athletic,good looking,voice,etc.
I got into college by the skin of my flesh and flunked out after one year. Got a job as a typist. After two years of typing I found the only thing I had achieved was "typing faster"
Reapplyed to college and with the help of friends, I got in !
The rest his history...
If you don't have agift from the your way through college and be a successful person.

Musing Mum said...

My son was identified gifted in Gr. 4-- no surprise; as a teacher I pretty much knew he was; however, he was always a high-achieving gifted kid. He did all his homework, studied for tests and excelled throughout high school. BUT, university was completely different. He ended up failing everything, even though he still had the strong work/study ethic. He didn't like his professors-- says they didn't teach and he wanted to be taught. He's going into a college program next year and is looking forward to being able to apply what he learns from his professors there-- they actually teach-- in his future career. Sometimes gifted kids don't want to just sit around thinking abstract thoughts. They want to do practical study/work that accomplishes something tangible.

Anonymous said...

Can we reopen this discussion? Honestly, my super-brilliant youngster just walked away after a 3rd year on a full-ride merit scholarship to a next-to-top-tier U. Says the reason is boredom for years--ennui--and having tried & tried to figure out how to stick with things over many years, just can't do it. How can I help? He's half living on the streets, about to learn how hard it is to live hand to mouth, and only accepting some limited assistance.

Denise said...

I understand your concern. My gifted child walked away from 2 scholarships at a state school for a more prestigious school, then left after a year because the kids only wanted to study all the time. She can't find a good "fit" for her creative and analytical skills. Working a min wage job & hoping to find something better. Schools are either too easy, too boring, too competitive or too structured. We are hoping she can design her own program and find a school with flexibility. My suggestion: encourage & support your child emotionally to find a path that fits. There are universities offering more flexible, self-directed learning now. Traditional universities are too structured for some high ability kids.

Guru Fiji said...

I can't pass college because I keep ruining the fing professor's lessons by being forced to participate. By ruin, I mean they respond, "We'll get to that later". This is all I've heard for a year every time I talk. I even didn't talk for a whole semester straight, as soon as I do, and my grades are meeting standards via their online service check.... The only service check...... I study even though I know the answers and the recap of the whole semester.... boom. 2 letter grades down with the finals being worth less than all previous 30 tests... only because I talked about and pointed out my misunderstanding to realize I failed; and actually pointed out their mistake.. Wtf!? Still I recieved my financial aid payment with no delay. This, I'm sure is what aggravates your gifted children who are 18/19 like me, or at least still an adolescent in their 20's or 25 according to u.k and their psychologists online report. This may be an all over the place comment, but I'm irritated with the lack of a golden standard to passing a class.