The Paper Chase in the Age of Slackers

Statistics on college graduation rates can be shocking. At the elite schools, as you’d expect, almost every student who enrolls graduates within six years. (That’s now the measuring stick—six year graduation rates.) At some of the lower-tier schools, however, graduation rates don’t even make double digits.

At schools like Harvard, every student is a high-achieving go-getter who is driven to succeed. If any of them don’t graduate, it’s only because they chose to succeed at something else, Bill Gates being the best example.

Conversely, at the non-selective schools, many of the students are academically weak and disengaged. For them, success in college is not a burning desire. Even though they’ve undoubtedly heard that having a degree is an advantage in the job world, they have a hard time exerting the self-discipline it takes to do the work that’s necessary.

It has been like that for a long time. Schools with excellent students have high graduation rates and schools with poor students have low graduation rates. In recent years, however, some people have started calling this natural condition a “crisis.”

Consider this sentence from a recent paper on the subject of college graduation rates: “America’s college graduation rate crisis is not happening at the handful of institutions that admit only a few of their applicants and graduate most—it is happening at a large swath of institutions that admit many but graduate few.”

That comes from the American Enterprise Institute’s “Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t)” by Frederick Hess, Mark Schneider, Kevin Carey, and Andrew Kelly. The authors have amassed a lot of data about graduation rates to show that there are enormous differences in graduation rates, not just between the elite and non-elite schools, but also among schools in the same selectivity grouping.

For example, there is a huge difference in graduation rates between the highest (Stonehill College in MA—85 percent) and lowest (Colorado Christian College—8 percent) ranking institutions in the “very competitive” category.

That’s just one illustration. The paper gives an abundance of data demonstrating that graduation rates vary greatly, especially among mid- and lower-tier institutions.

All right, but what conclusion should we draw? Is a high graduation rate proof of educational success—or just that the school has easy standards? Is a low graduation rate proof of educational malpractice—or that the school doesn’t pamper students who aren’t cutting it?

The authors offer the caveat that they are not saying that high graduation rates are necessarily good and low rates are necessarily bad, but throughout the paper, that nevertheless seems to be their implication. Referring to schools with low graduation rates, they say, “the evidence suggests that many of these institutions are not serving their students well.”

What evidence? The paper does not examine any college to try ascertaining how well it serves its students. Despite the disclaimer, the authors have lapsed into the assumption that low graduation rates are bad and ought to be higher.

In the same vein, they continually write about schools with low graduation rates as “risky investments” for students.

For instance, when discussing the low graduation rates of most historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), they write, “For many African American men and women, however, choosing to attend an HBCU may be a risky investment, one with less than 50 percent chance of producing a degree.”

When the authors write like that, they convey the impression that the college decision is similar to a gambler walking into a casino and trying to find the games with the best odds. Success in college, however, is not a matter of chance.

Even at schools with very low graduation rates, some students do graduate. They discipline themselves and work hard enough to earn the credits they need to graduate. It’s not that those who graduate were the “lucky” ones. Each student is in control of his destiny; either he does what is required, or he doesn’t. We’re not talking about dice here. We’re talking about human beings with free will.

That’s why I find it troubling that the authors repeatedly talk about schools “failing to graduate their students.” Colorado Christian College doesn’t “fail to graduate” 92 percent of the students who enroll there. Rather, only 8 percent do what is required of them to graduate.

Let’s place responsibility where it belongs.

And why does it matter if many colleges and universities have graduation rates that appear low? Here’s the sentence that explains the authors’ reason for looking into this: “At a time when President Barack Obama is proposing vast new investments to promote college attendance and completion, and has announced an intention to see the United States regain leadership in such tallies, these results take on heightened significance.”

A lot of politicians, including the president, talk as if the nation desperately needs far more college graduates, but the idea is badly mistaken. The truth is that large numbers of college graduates wind up doing work that calls for no particular academic training. Charles Murray makes that argument in his recent book Real Education and I have frequently referred to Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that sizable percentages of college graduates compete for “high school” jobs once they’re in the labor force, such as in this Investor’s Business Daily op-ed.

Instead of thinking that America has a crisis of not having enough college graduates, a far better argument can be made that we have a problem in luring too many young people with weak academic skills into college in the first place.

Unfortunately, the authors accept the notion that we’re “underperforming” in higher education and want the government to make data on graduation rates readily available to students and families. They call it “an invaluable piece of information.” Presumably, fewer would choose the “high risk” schools if they knew the “odds” against them. Then the schools that supposedly aren’t serving students well would have to improve.

I see no reason to believe that change would do anything except perhaps increase pressure on schools with low graduation rates to lower their standards so as to keep students on track for degrees—degrees many of them will come to regard as little more than expensive wall décor.

Rather than assuming that a low graduation rate school is doing something wrong, it’s just as plausible to think that it’s doing something right—being honest with poor students.