Patrick Welsh in USA Today offered this analysis for rising college attendance despite quick and rising dropout rates:
The trend is certainly a boon to the education establishment. High schools like mine, always eager for good press, can boast that they have prepared an ever greater percentage of their charges to move on to the halls of academe. And though colleges blame us in the high schools for sending them kids who are woefully unprepared, they blithely pocket the tuition from such students lest they have to downsize and lay off professors and administrators.This is an underrated point, I think. Yet it is one that is borne out, at least by my personal experience. I went to an average public high school like so many millions of American youth, and I can't count how many times I saw teachers shuffle poorly performing students along or slack off themselves simply because it was easier to do so, and perhaps beneficial to their reputation and the school's. To the extent that it happens, it is a travesty. If students are graduating high school and are thus more likely to get into college, but (1) aren't actually up to par academically and/or (2) are committing themselves to a mountain of debt they could otherwise avoid, teachers are doing a grave disservice to their pupils.
But how much students with low skills, little motivation and lousy study habits are going to profit from going to college is not so clear. Over the past five years, I have seen students who didn't have the skills one would expect of a ninth-grader going off to four-year colleges where fewer than 30% of entering freshman graduate.
That means that 70% of the freshman class is likely to end up not with a diploma but a pile of debt. In these days of tight budgets at every level of government, it's also hard to ignore that these schools are heavily subsidized by the federal government.
For the most part, this has a significance for the real problems with the structure, effectiveness, and productivity of public high schools, rather than college and higher education. Various reforms like vouchers or performance pay could mitigate this as a factor in our higher ed issues. But this should be more frequently a part of the diagnosis.