By Richard Vedder
Ask adult Americans, "what percent of entering high school students graduate from college in the next decade?" What answer would you expect? 40 percent? 30 percent? 25 percent?
The actual answer is more like 17 (some data says 18). For every 14 year old high school freshman who successfully completes high school and a bachelor's degree within 10 years, or an associate degree in seven years, there are nearly five other kids who drop out somewhere along the way. The college success rate is so low that it will lead to reduced proportions of adults with college degrees in time unless offset by very substantial amounts of adult education (older persons returning to earn degrees), and/or by increased inflows of college-educated immigrants.
The huge attrition rate occurs at three points. First, close to one-third of kids simply do not graduate from high school in a timely manner. Then another 40 or even 45 percent of the remainder do not start colege, at either a two or four year institution. Finally, more than 40 percent of the remainder fail to graduate within six years with a bachelor's degree, or three years with an associate's degree.
How can a system be considered successful or efficient if such a large portion of the resources never acheive the goal of a completed education? To be sure, students with half a degree fare better in the labor force than those with no degree at all, so not all of the drop-outs are failures in even some economic sense. Nonetheless, the huge attrition rate raises several questions:
- In our yearning to offer college opportunities for all, are we luring too many unqualified students into higher education where they ultimately fail? In other words, are we overinvested in higher education?
- Why are large portions of students not going on to college? Because they do not want to? Because they are (or feel they are) unqualified? Because they are worried about the rising financial costs?
- Is the dismal college success rate rising or falling over time and how does it compare with other countries?
- There are wide interstate variations in the college success rate. Why do these differences exist? What do states with a high success rate (e.g., Massachusetts) do differently than states with a low success rate (e.g. Texas)?
These and other questions deserve exploring and more national attention. We are going to be doing our part at CCAP to extend national awareness of this problem, and perhaps even suggest some of the causes for what would seem to be an example of massive educational failure at both the secondary and higher education levels.