Is it Fair to Call Them “Failure Factories”?

Even for those of us with a jaundiced view of American higher education, it’s surprising to learn that overall our colleges and universities have a lower graduation rate than our high schools do. About three-fourths of high school freshmen graduate, while barely more than half of college freshmen do. Still more surprising is the fact that there are quite a few that actually have graduation rates of zero.

Those are among the statistics documented in “The Costs of Failure Factories in American Higher Education” by Mark Schneider. Schneider is the former Commissioner of Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education and is a professor of political science at S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook. As you might expect, his paper has generated plenty of commentary.

Surveying the data with which he is so familiar, Schneider writes, “American postsecondary graduation rates are low, and the costs of these failure factories to students and the federal government are high.” Furthermore, he notes, compared with our international competitors, the U.S. spends more on higher education but is falling behind them in the percentage of citizens who earn college degrees.

The paper raises an important question: Do those statistics show that we have an educational problem? And if so, exactly what is the problem?

Graduation rates at many of our institutions of higher education are shockingly low and the automatic temptation is to say, “We’d better find ways to raise them!” Schneider, though, is a bit cautious. He notes that since the quality of students admitted at many schools is very poor, a low graduation rate is exactly what we should expect.

I can attest from personal experience to Schneider’s point about the poor academic ability of many students. Back in the 1980s, I taught at a non-selective institution where a large percentage of the students had reading and writing skills that weren’t even up to middle-school standards. Some of them just couldn’t learn the basics in my courses (business law and economics); some never really tried to. Nevertheless, many eventually graduated, probably to find that the job market was not very receptive to them. As for the significant percentage who did not graduate, it’s hard to see how more classroom time to accumulate the credits needed for a degree would have meant any worthwhile gain in their skills and knowledge.

Does it matter that we have a low graduation rate among weak students? Schneider seems ambivalent. As noted above, he does say that low graduation rates are to be expected at schools that mostly accept unprepared and often unmotivated students. Elsewhere in his paper, though, he’s clearly troubled by our graduation rates. He writes, for example, “This level of postsecondary attainment shows no sign of improving across generations.” He also observes that compared with other industrialized nations, the U.S. is mediocre in terms of college degrees. “American higher education as a whole is failing to live up to its reputation as the world’s best, “ he proclaims.

Judging from those thoughts, which come on the first page, Schneider believes that the United States does have an educational “attainment” problem.

I cannot agree, for several reasons.

First, our international economic competitiveness in no way depends on educational “attainment” among Americans. Workers need to be capable of doing the jobs the economy creates, but overwhelmingly the ability to learn to do them is not a result of formal education. In her excellent, iconoclastic book Does Education Matter? (which I reviewed here) Professor Alison Wolf maintains that there is no direct relationship between a nation’s “educational attainment” and its prosperity. “The simple one-way relationship which so entrances our politicians and commentators – education spending in, growth out – simply doesn’t exist,” she writes. Wolf points out that Switzerland, which has never done much to promote higher education nevertheless has a highly prosperous economy.

Second, many young Americans now only go to college to obtain their education credentials. True, large numbers of jobs “require” a college degree today, but as Bryan O’Keefe and Richard Vedder show in their recent paper, employers are widely using the possession of a college degree merely as a rough screening device, a substitute for general aptitude testing (which federal statutes and court decisions have made legally perilous). It’s a great waste of resources to send students through college just to get a fancy piece of paper.

Third, for many young Americans, their college degrees aren’t even valuable as credentials. As I noted here, a startling fact about the labor market is the large number of people who have college degrees but are working at jobs that don’t even remotely call for advanced academic preparation, such as airline flight attendant and aerobics instructor.

The problem with American higher education is not that too few students graduate, but rather than so many of weak ability are pressured into college in the first place. Schneider does mention that we have an informational problem when students keep enrolling in schools with very low (and even zero) graduation rates. But just knowing that College X has an abysmally low graduation rate isn’t sufficient for a weak student who’s thinking of enrolling. He’ll probably think, “That school isn’t good.” That might be correct, but the poor kid is probably still thinking that he just needs to go to college somewhere else.

Far more useful to him would be information on the relative value of pursuing a college degree versus the benefits of going into some sort of vocational training or directly entering the labor force.

Evaluating that choice is not a matter of college statistics. It depends on knowledge of the individual student. High school guidance counselors are in the best position to help young people choose the best path given their strengths and weaknesses, but as professor Kenneth Gray and Edwin Herr observe in their book Other Ways to Win, many guidance counselors push college attendance on almost every student, apparently fearing that they’ll be seen as failures if they have a low rate of students enrolling in college.

We don’t need to worry about our college graduation rates, but if they went up because fewer students who have little academic ability or interest enrolled, that would be good.