Monday, November 03, 2008

Are Colleges Failure Factories?

By Richard Vedder

The recently departed commissioner of education statistics, Mark Schneider, says American colleges are "failure factories", pointing out the dropout rate (after six years, yet) is far higher than the much more criticized high school dropout rate. INSIDE HIGHER ED asked another former Ed Department official, the indefatigable Cliff Adelman, for his comments, and they were not particularly favorable, implying Schneider has some hostility towards higher education (Cliff himself, however, is no shrinking violet, and has been known to be highly critical as well). Cliff notes, for example, that because of the plethora of part-time and transfer students, the published grad rates are seriously deficient, a point with some validity.

Even Cliff acknowledges, however, that roughly one-third of students have not graduated within EIGHT years (time enough even for most part-timers to graduate). And it does not seriously question Mark Schneider's contention that there are literally hundreds of institutions with published graduation rates below one-third. Why do we keep funding these institutions? Why do we not punish failure? Many institutions take students they KNOW will fail, robbing them of their tuition monies and giving them false hopes, only to have them left degree-less and debt-ridden.

This gets to the major problem. There are almost no consequences for substandard performance or behavior in higher ed. Because of grade inflation, students who goof off in class usually get by and graduate. The intellectual content of many courses has become sadly diluted, and the course content highly suspect, with kids even getting credit for learning how to get around the university campus (through credits given for orientation classes). Schools that take kids who are highly unlikely to graduate get subsidies for taking those kids.

Above all, there is no bottom line. In the 2007 FORTUNE 500 list, AIG was the company with the 11th highest market value; today it is history. Citigroup was 8th in 2007, and not in the top 20 in 2008. Capitalism punishes those who make mistakes, and punishes them brutally. And rewards are great too. Between 2007 and 2008 Berkshire Hathaway added over $40 billion in stockholder value as it rose from 14th to 7th on the Fortune 500 companies by market value.

Yet rankings of college show modest change over time. The top 10 schools in 1940 are, roughly speaking, the top 10 schools today. With no discernible way of measuring quality, we assume schools remain constant, no matter how ineptly they are managed, no matter how neglectful the school becomes of undergraduates, no matter how much the curriculum is diluted.

Mark Schneider may not have raised colleges' self-esteem, but he should be commended for telling it like it is.


Melissa said...

If I ran a company and had an 80% failure and rejection rate, I'd be fired and the company's reputation would be severely damaged. If I ran a company that had a 50% failure and rejection rate, the company would be out of business.

But Higher Ed is okay with this? In fact Higher Ed would probably fight to keep it that way. Like the Green Berets, it's a badge of honor to be able to say H.E. washes out one of two.

And why is it only 50%? Why not 35% retention? Or 99 and 44/100'ths?

Ballad of The Higher Ed Students:

Leveraged students from the sky
Fearless kids who jump and die
Think they mean just what they say?
The brave kids of Credit USA.

Dribbled beer upon their chest
These are them, America's best
One million grads will test today
But one in two get the big okay

Trained to live off booze and sex
Trained in sleep, at the back of class
Kids who bang both night and day
And one in two get the skin okay.

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret

Back at home a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
Leaving her his last request

Put silver wings on my son's chest
Make him one of America's best
He'll be a man they'll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret.

capeman said...

Where I live the fraction of beginning community college students who say they INTEND to get a bachelor's degree who ACTUALLY DO is about 1 in 6.

Does this mean the community colleges are failures and their academic programs should be shut down?

At the nearest large hospital, the 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is something like 5%.

Does this mean the hospital is a failure factory and should be shut down?

Such is the bizarre logic on offer here.

bellestarr said...

I am a 1990 graduate of a community college and returned to the same school about 5 years ago. I have accumulated about 73 credits during that time, and have noticed a dumbing down in the classes in that short of time absence. Low tests are eliminated, extra credit is offered, and it is not unusual for students to come in late, leave early, or skip class. The physics teacher resorted to giving those who came to class on time extra points, and it still didn't matter. I have taken math, engineering, chemistry and art classes, and I think the art students actually were more interesting and hard working overall. They seem to acknowledge that art is not an easy career to pursue, at least whatever art they would like to do, and the teacher emphasized the difficulty of becoming a well-known sucessful fine artist. Many of these students had plans A, B and C in mind. They were some of the most competitive students I have encountered.

It is not the college's fault its students do not graduate, but it is their fault they persist in advancing the belief that everyone is college material, and will benefit from a good job afterward.

I don't think the hospital analogy works well here, The options for treating cancer are more limited than those in pursuing a career.

Charles Murrary's book "Real Education" makes strong arguments for re-thinking the college solution to worker training.