Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts?

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Education Week has some survey results that most people probably won’t find surprising or controversial, but that actually raise some tough ethical questions:

The public pins most of the blame for poor college graduation rates on students and their parents and gives a pass to colleges, government officials and others, a new Associated Press-Stanford University poll shows…

When asked where the blame lies for graduation rates at public four-year colleges, 7 in 10 said students shouldered either a great deal or a lot of it, and 45 percent felt that way about parents.

Others got off relatively easy: Anywhere between 25 percent and 32 percent of those polled blamed college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials and federal education officials.

Plausible enough! If you go to college and don’t graduate, whose fault is it but yours?

Yet Education Week thinks this is bad news for folks like us:

The belief that students are most at fault for graduation rates is a troubling sign for reformers who have elevated college completion to the forefront of higher education policy debates and pushed colleges to fix the problem, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford.

“The message is, ‘Students, you had your shot at college and failed and it’s your fault, not the college,'” Kirst said.

You know what? I think they’re right. This is bad news for us on a certain level. Gathering political capital for reforms that will do something about our collegiate dropout factories requires us to convince people that the colleges, not just the students, need to change.

And yet I don’t think the popular view is quite wrong. Check out this quote:

“We’re all responsible for our own education, and by the time you get to college you are definitely responsible and mature,” said Deanna Ginn, a mother of 12 from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Ginn is right. We don’t want to undermine the personal responsibility of each individual student who drops out.

Yet that can easily become an excuse to take colleges off the hook for their legitimate responsibilities, and these survey results show that happening.

Matt has spent a lot of time documenting the disaster in Arizona, where (to pick just a couple of many shocking numbers he’s posted here) ASU graduates only 28% of students in four years, and the University of Arizona 33%. But those are not really unusual numbers – this is not just an Arizona problem.

No doubt, as thousands of kids come in, spend money and then drop out, year after year, the college administrators and their hired protectors in state legislatures tell themselves exactly what Ginn says – if you drop out, it’s your own fault.

Well, yes. If you drop out, it is your own fault. But let’s think about this. Year after year, you see these dismal dropout rates. Is that really no business of yours? Is it really OK to say that sure, something like two-thirds of the new students we’re accepting this year are making a bad decision by coming here, but hey, as long as their tuition checks clear, that’s their headache, not ours?

I say if you run a college that has a two-thirds dropout rate, it’s your responsibility to do something about that. Taking people’s money to help them make bad choices is both morally wrong and, even from a merely selfish standpoint, imprudent in the long term. You should be asking how you can help ensure that kids who have a low likelihood of graduating are steered onto some alternate path – perhaps you can develop an alternate path for them at your own institution, which would allow you to cash their tuition checks and also look yourself in the mirror with respect. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with saying that each and every dropout is personally responsible for dropping out.

If I know you have an allergy to a vaccine that’s so bad you’ll die if I inject you with it, I have a responsibility not to inject you with it no matter how much money you offer me or how completely convinced you might be that it’ll do you good. After we say that, the principle also implies repsonsibilities at a little lower level than life and death.

11 Responses to Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts?

  1. Patrick says:

    ASU is Harvard compared to UNLV – a 4-year graduation rate of 11 percent. UNLV’s 8-YEAR graduation rate is 48 percent – yes not even half of the full-time freshman students will graduate with a degree after trying the Van Wilder plan.

    Here in Nevada everyone blames the students and gaming. But I say, if you can’t teach kids professional skills that are more financially lucrative than parking cars and dealing cards then whose fault is that really? Answer: Education.

    To be fair, a large chunk of UNLV freshman students have to take remedial math and English courses – but then, maybe UNLV shouldn’t admit so many students?

  2. allen says:

    Uh, is someone missing the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room?

    After thirteen years of exposure to daily reassurance that education is a bunch of crap it strikes me as a trifle unrealistic to expect kids to shed the influence of the public education system, develop a bunch of skills and do what it takes to graduate on time. I notice there isn’t any breakout by race on the poll which is at – http://surveys.ap.org/
    I wonder how many black parents would agree with the polls major findings?

    Then there are the colleges which, if any conclusion can be drawn from spiraling tuition rates, may not necessarily have the best educational interests of the students as their primary motivators. Of course they do have to accept the product of the public education system but honest might compel those with the best interests of the student at heart to be brutally honest about their likelihood of graduation.

  3. […] Guest-blogging for Jay Greene, Greg Forster asks: Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts? […]

  4. […] Guest-blogging for Jay Greene, Greg Forster asks: Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts? […]

  5. LSquared says:

    Hmm, now, I hope you’re not saying that colleges should lower their standards for what you have to know and be able to do in order to get a college degree. That’s the easy way out for the everyone is to just inflate all of the grades: more kids graduate, though they still don’t know anything, and we all get paid. Unfortunately, it erodes the value of a US university degree. Right now, that’s some of the best intellectual capital we have. It would be a shame to throw it away.

    The traditional answer is to admit fewer students. To insist that students meet a rigorous academic standard before we let them in. It would make a much higher percentage of students graduate. It would shrink the universities, and it would keep the value of a college education. On the other hand, it would lock a lot of students out of the opportunity to try to get a college education. Do we have a responsibility to let as many people as possible try to earn a university degree? A lot of people would say we do: that involves admitting people where we know that their academic background makes it unlikely but not impossible to earn a degree. I’d argue that perhaps a truth in admission statement would be a good idea (like the truth in lending requirements): something like “students entering this university with your ACT/SAT score and GPA have a 40% chance of graduating within 5 years”. That would be a good idea. Students should know what they are getting into before they spend 3 years getting themselves into debt. I’m more reluctant to exclude students entirely at that level.

    More support services? That’s a solution I would feel happy about if it works. I don’t know about ASU, but the smaller university I work for has several offices worth of those. I don’t know if they are really helping or not–I hope they are. If we can help students to actually reach the appropriate level in a reasonable amount of time, that’s worth doing.

  6. Dr. Sanford Aranoff says:

    I submit the reason for dropouts is professors not focusing on understanding as their primary goal, instead looking at how-to and accomplishments on tasks. I am a math professor, and this is my goal, but too many are not this way. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better”. See also the new book, “Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living”. What does understanding mean? It means knowing what the basic principles are, understanding the logical consequences and empirical verifications.

  7. concerned says:

    Over the last 20 years, “reform” math programs that tout “deep understanding” have ruined America’s K-12 math programs and students’ future prospects. High school students, unable to perform basic math calculations, are convinced they “understand the concept”
    Colleges should definitely NOT lower their standards or we’ll never get rid of this junk that’s in our K-12 schools!
    I like the “truth in admissions” idea that LSquared proposed above. Maybe it could also include this information for students and parents “students admitted from —- school district, using —- math program have a –% of graduating within 5 years”

  8. Jay says:

    Kids don’t drop out solely for academic reasons. I quit school because of money problems. I had to work extra full time. (I’ve since gone back and graduated.) My father quit school when he had a kid (me.) (He too went back and finished.) Life is stressful. The flux in grad rates might correlate???

  9. Clearly, our naive irrational “college for all” mentality is the leading cause of college dropouts. Enrollment in a bachelor degree program will do nothing for someone who doesn’t finish – and it often does nothing anyway, as many people end up working in careers that never required higher ed (or nothing beyond and associates degree.) Thus, it is first and foremost the fault of the students themselves, secondly the fault of high school counselors and administrators, and thirdly the fault of the colleges who admitted kids who had no business in higher education. Expectations are too high and standards for higher education are way too low.

  10. Daniel Earley says:

    I appreciate the fact that extenuating circumstances can arise during one’s college education that could place attendance on hold and delay completion. I recall when my sister’s husband divorced her while she was pregnant with their fifth child. During the upheaval that ensued, her three teenage daughters quickly became difficult to manage. With two semesters remaining, I took a year off to move in with her and act as surrogate father for my nieces and nephew until things settled down. I know people who have taken time off from school for health reasons as well. I also realize, however, that such cases won’t likely amount to statistical significance — enormous as they may be to the individual. Objective measurements of institutional graduation rates within time periods are surely still a positive step.

  11. […] Jay Greene on Deciding Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts: “I say if you run a college that has a two-thirds dropout rate, it’s your responsibility to do something about that. Taking people’s money to help them make bad choices is both morally wrong and, even from a merely selfish standpoint, imprudent in the long term. You should be asking how you can help ensure that kids who have a low likelihood of graduating are steered onto some alternate path – perhaps you can develop an alternate path for them at your own institution, which would allow you to cash their tuition checks and also look yourself in the mirror with respect. I don’t think that’s inconsistent with saying that each and every dropout is personally responsible for dropping out.” (Jay P. Greene’s Blog) […]

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