The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Just Because They Start Doesn’t Mean They Finish

A new report from the Gates Foundation’s Complete College America indicates that college enrollment is rising but college completion is not.  The NYT reports:

Its report, which had the cooperation of 33 governors, showed how many of the students in states completed their degrees, broken down into different categories , including whether enrollment is full- or part-time, or at a two- or four-year institution.

The numbers are stark: In Texas, for example, of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only 2 of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only 7 of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, 5 graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree.

Our educational system isn’t nearly user-friendly enough.  Modeled after aristocratic and elitists institutions in Reformation England, American undergraduate colleges still accept as a default model four years of full time residential study.  A deep confusion about different kinds of education means that the model of liberal arts education is stretched to fit subjects like “business administration” and “water safety management” which have much more to do with training than with education in the classic sense.

Most of the students in postsecondary education these days are there because our excessively bureaucratized society demands largely meaningless paper credentials as the ticket of admission to jobs and careers with good prospects.  We are creating artificial hoops and forcing young people to take ever longer and more expensive courses in hoop-jumping.

Liberal arts education is important, but four years of it is not something everyone wants or needs.  The American educational system needs to offer much shorter, cheaper and more focused courses that teach skills.  Degrees need to reflect “stuff learned” rather than “time served”; most of the credit hours students take in many of our educational institutions are time wasting fluff courses at which little is taught and less is learned.  A great many jobs that now require BA or even MA degrees should be opened to people who can demonstrate basic competency at job related tasks like reading, writing and math.

The current system serves professors reasonably well and administrators spectacularly so, creating large educational bureaucracies that serve no noticeable social function other than providing jobs.  Some groups of students are served reasonably well; but poor students, non-traditional students and the large number of people who are less interested in a classical liberal education than in acquiring the decorative pieces of paper that will allow them to compete for jobs a little higher up the food chain are generally forced to take far too many bad courses — without ever, in high school or ‘college’, ever acquiring the basic academic skills that might actually help them most.  Students with other obligations are hit especially hard:

Among older students, as well as those who are awarded Pell grants, and black and Hispanic students, the report said, fewer than one in five of those attending college part time will earn a degree in six years.

“Time is the enemy of college completion,” the report said. “The longer it takes, the more life gets in the way of success.”

American education doesn’t need some tinkering around the edges.  It needs a basic rethink.  “Time served” traditional academic degrees need to become much less important; “stuff learned” certificates need to replace those degrees as the entry tickets to most careers.  More of our educational institutions will need to shift away from imitating 17th century Oxford or 19th century Heidelberg and focus on helping large numbers of people acquire necessary knowledge and skills as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

Making education and training more efficient is one of the ways the United States can become a more productive and therefore a more affluent society.  Making vital skills more accessible to the poor, to immigrants, and to struggling young people trying to get that first foothold on the ladder of life is one of the ways we can become a fairer, more equal society.

Published on September 29, 2011 11:05 am
  • ms

    Truer words were never spoken. I think a job-training reset will happen–painfully— because college has become a bubble, which for many people no longer makes sense because the cost in both time and money is far too high. Ironically, the people who complete their degrees are often not the ones best suited for many of the jobs that require a degree of some sort. We need to become far better at determining what sort of talents people possess and creating myriad paths (apprenticeships, internships, vocational training, and for some, college) to prepare people to maximize their talents and make a living. Over the past 50 years, our nation has become far too fixated on the idea that college is a leg up and is for most people. There is a prestige and equality factor in there which is understandable, but this has never been practical and is becoming less so. All work is honorable, and it is time we started paying more attention to matching talent and employment and quit trying to shove everyone through the very expensive doors of the nation’s colleges.

  • Luke Lea

    “liberal arts education is important, but four years of it is not something everyone wants or needs.”

    I’d be happy if they got two years of world and American history in grammar school, then the same thing again in junior and senior high school. What everyone needs — rich and poor, the academically swift and the academically slow — is the Big Picture: (a) history is the story of man’s struggle from servitude to freedom; (b), a terrible human price has been paid to build the modern world; and (c) those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

  • Marc Fleuette

    And this is differentiated from asset stripping how? I’ve contended in the past, and see no reason to change, that, as currently practiced, the purpose of college education is to soak up the middle-class surplus.It is high time we tri-furcate students in to vocational, clerical/professional, and academic tracks (probably 70%/20%/10%). That would be much fairer to most “students”. My two cents worth

  • JM

    Many students graduating from high school today simply don’t have the communication skills and work habits to be effective employees. From a hiring manager’s point of view, at least someone who has graduated from college is one of the small percentage of students who can “stick with it.” Those graduates will likely succeed in the workplace as well.

    But make no mistake: a convincingly smart and hard-working high school grad can get a good job and be successful without the college degree. Private-sector hiring practices are not the barrier here. From the private sector’s point of view, a college degree really serves more as a filtering mechanism, so they can more easily identify quality candidates.

    But if colleges mostly serve as a filtering mechanism, this is a very expensive way of filtering.

    Perhaps there is an opening for a private sector solution for filtering: independent companies that assess, measure and certify the skills, intelligence, and work habits of students (or non-students). If they can do this credibly enough, then employers will value this certification and use it for hiring.

  • Toni

    Blame much of the problem on academia itself.

    Grade inflation has devalued the worth of a college degree, while colleges — while demanding all sorts of government aid for students — have been raising tuition far faster than the rate of inflation for at least a couple of decades.

    Note, too, that no matter how flush the economy and college endowments, tuition never ever ever falls. Funny thing, huh?

    (Old WSJ cartoon had a pilgrim asking a bearded guru on a mountaintop, “I know life is funny. But is it weird funny or ha-ha funny?”)

  • Paul

    I have had many conversations in which Mr. Mead’s points and hopes for reform, as well as “JM’s” practical comments on the actual uses to which those paper credentials are put by prospective employers, have featured.

    As to JM’s suggestion of private filtering: employers used to do such filtering by personal judgment alone. The familial and ethno-cultural biases present in this process would horrify us today. As firms grew and culture bureaucratized, much filtering came to be done by standardized testing, written or otherwise. We have found the “disparate impact” of such filtering on various ethno-cultural groups to be horrifying as well. JM’s suggestion would be challenged and destroyed on this basis, as well.

    I submit that paper “academic” credentials play such a large role in filtering largely because other basic screening processes — not all of them abstractly “just” — have been proscribed by state power. This was but one unintended effect of policies that had other primary goals.

    Of course, to those like our host here, that means only that we need to re-optimize our policies.