(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.