By Richard Vedder
Tom Mortensen no doubts loves President's Obama's message: "By 2020 America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." I do not --I think it is a foolhardy and inappropriate public ambition. But I do agree with Tom on one thing: there is not a chance it will happen (when it does not, ex-President Obama can blame his successor).
There are three obstacles that a high school freshman has to overcome before getting a bachelor's degree. First, she must graduate from high school. Second, she must enter college. Third, she must complete college in a reasonably timely manner (say within six years). When you lose over one-third of the potential pool at each of the first two steps of the process (high school graduation and college entrance), you already have only about two out of every five students eligible for college graduation. And when you lose at least 45 percent of those for failure to complete a bachelor's degree, you are left with roughly one student in five who gets a degree.
By contrast, the success rate in most other industrial nations is substantially higher. Why? Is it the fault of a mediocre secondary school system combined with parents indifferent to academic success? Is it because the drop off rate from high school and college is relatively high? Or, is it because college completion rates are relatively low in the U.S.?
I suspect all three factors are at work, especially the first and third. Despite all the complaining about college access by Mortensen and others, that is probably the least important reason why we have such low rates of college attainment in our population. According to Mortensen (Postsecondary Education Opportunity, March 2009), the college completion rate in 2005 was above 75 percent in Japan, Britain, Russia, Germany, even neighboring Quebec -- but only 56 percent in the U.S. --lower than nearly all other advanced industrial countries.
Why do students graduate in the other countries far more than the U.S.? I don't know, but I don't believe the explanation of most liberals that it is mainly about inadequate financial support for poorer students. I suspect it has more to do with inadequate preparation for college, along with the college's placing obstacles to graduation ---more credit hours than international norms, more class close outs because professors consider research more important than teaching, etc.
Some data from Mortensen support the first assertion. Kids graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class roughly have an 80 percent graduation rate; kids in the bottom half of their high school class have roughly a 40 percent graduation rate at public universities. Regarding the insensitivity of colleges to getting students through, private schools which are much more tuition driven on average have far higher graduation rates than public schools that rely less on student financial support (e.g., kids in the top one-fourth of their high school class have a 67 percent graduation rate at private schools, 52 percent at public ones).
All of this is consistent with several CCAP themes. Sending some kids to college is setting them up for failure. They should have different forms of post-secondary training and experiences. The lack of market incentives leads to poorer performance. High tuition fees are actually good in one respect: they force colleges to pay more attention to the students and less to the peculiar drive to publish papers in obscure journals of last resort. I once taught at a 100 percent tuition driven institution affiliated with the University of Colorado that offered first class instruction because if they did not the institution would die (it ultimately did).