Here you probably thought our most elite universities were to bame for the economic crisis. At Harvard students were taught obsolete ideas about business management. At Penn and University of Chicago, students were ingrained with flawed ideas about perfect, efficient markets. And of course, all of the elite schools helped enforce an economic clubbiness, which soon turned into inbredness.
But wait, David Leonhardt at NYT has a different villain in main:
If you were going to come up with a list of organisations whose failures had done the most damage to the American economy in recent years, you’d probably have to start with the Wall Street firms and regulatory agencies that brought us the financial crisis. From there, you might move on to Wall Street’s fellow bailout recipients in Detroit, the once-Big Three.
But I would suggest that the list should also include a less obvious nominee: public universities.
Yep, he’s serious, and here’s why
At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world. Yet in terms of its core mission — turning teenagers into educated college graduates — much of the system is simply failing.
Only 33 per cent of the freshmen who enter the University of Massachusetts, Boston, graduate within six years. Less than 41 per cent graduate from the University of Montana, and 44 per cent from the University of New Mexico. The economist Mark Schneider refers to colleges with such dropout rates as “failure factories,” and they are the norm.
Our first thought was that the news confirmed what John Carney argued yesterday — that too many students are going to four-year school, and that they should be going down other avenues.
The academics studying this trend, who are clearly in the pro-college camp, disagree. They cite a lack of emphasis on graduation rates and an overemphasis on merely getting into college. And they note that low-income students frequently don’t go to the best college they can get into (elite schools typically do better with graduation rates), but instead opt to go to cheaper, closer-to-home alternatives, where graduation rates are lower.
OK… But this still leaves some gigantic questions. For example, the authors cite students who go to Eastern Michigan University (39% graduation rate), but who could have gone to University of Michigan (88% graduation rate). But UMich is already at maximum capacity — as are other elite schools — so for one thing, an influx of new applicants, would just displace students, and we’d be back to ground zero. But beyond that, how do we know that the the UMich graduation rate would stay constant given an influx of students who used to go to Eastern Michigan? That’s a gigantic variable.
The economists looking at the question get at it a little bit. There’s some evidence that affordability mattesr, i.e., a students ability to keep paying for an elite school once they’ve gotten accepted. And schools that place a high emphasis on graduation do seem to improve rates, somewhat.
But while the educators complain that high schools aren’t doing enough to prepare students for college, the goal of “improved matriculation” sounds just as silly. Just as graduating from high school doesn’t automatically make you prepared for college, graduating from college doesn’t automatically make you ready for the real world.
Given that so many students drop out of college, the burden of proof still rests on those who insist that more people need to go to college and that it’s A Good Thing. Then we can talk about increasing graduation rates.
(Picture: ‘Sorority Girls’ via Flickr user Maxim303)