Friday, December 11, 2009

A New Report on College Dropouts

First, the numbers:
Only one in five of those who enroll in two-year institutions earn an associate degree within three years, and only two in five of those who start four-year colleges complete their degrees within six years.
Then some attempts at an explanation, based on a survey of 600 people aged 22 to 30:

The study, which has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points, found substantial differences between those who completed a degree and those who did not. Among those who dropped out, nearly 6 in 10 got no help from their parents in paying tuition. Among those who got degrees, more than 6 in 10 had tuition help from their families.

About 7 in 10 of the dropouts said they had no scholarship or loan aid. Among those who got degrees, only about four in 10 went without such aid.

Almost three-quarters of those who completed a degree had household incomes above $35,000. Among the dropouts, more than half had household incomes below $35,000. And while 7 in 10 of the college graduates had parents who had completed at least some college work, four in 10 of the dropouts had parents with nothing beyond a high school diploma.

Colleges need to be aware, the report emphasized, that only about a quarter of those enrolled in higher education fit the popular image of a college student living in a dorm and attending classes full time. Almost as many have dependent children.

The top reason the dropouts gave for leaving college was that it was just too hard to support themselves and go to school at the same time. Balancing work and school was a bigger barrier than finding money for tuition, they said. In fact, more than a third of the dropouts said that even if they got a grant that covered their books and tuition, it would be hard to go back to school, given their work and family commitments.

Some of this boils down to family: the middle-class children of college educated parents are much more likely to finish college than anyone else. Money is an issue but not the main issue; I would be willing to bet that a fair number of poor students who are getting no financial aid could get something if they knew how and made the effort.

Our educational system deals best with students who come in straight from high school, go full time, live on campus and limit the hours they work. Traditional colleges are set up for such people. People trying to mix college with a conventional working life, or with raising a family, face all sorts of barriers. And the most important barriers, I think, are psychological. A lot of what we teach in college is intentionally far removed from the everyday problems of people struggling to live alone on low-end salaries, or to support families. Part of the point is to get students to think about other lives, other realities. And it is easiest for people to appreciate that when they are not struggling to keep up with their practical concerns. I keep thinking back to the study the University of Minnesota did on its own dropouts, whose main issue was that what they were learning in college didn't seem relevant to their lives.

When people study the psychological differences between poor people and middle class people, they keep turning up differences in the attitude toward time. Middle class people think more in the long term and plan more for the future; poor people live more in the present, which is all they can handle. College is a long-term thing. It is designed to teach, not skills you can put to work tomorrow, but ways of thinking that will benefit you over the course of your life. It also requires you to put various goals, especially financial goals, on hold for years while you do stuff that often seems irrelevant. Since a college diploma often discriminates, in our world, between those who will be in the middle class from those who won't, it reinforces these differences. It is obviously much easier to think in the long term when the short term is not a struggle to make ends meet, feed children, and the like.

So if we really want to get more Americans to graduate from four-year colleges, which is an Obama administration goal, I see two possible approaches: get more students to study full time, live in dorms, and generally avoid the entanglements of adult life, and redesign some curricula to address the immediate needs of young working people.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Some of the barriers to combining college study with work and/or family may have to do with the contents of college courses and the general purpose of college. But I suspect the biggest barrier is that multitasking, stress, dealing with multiple deadlines in multiple areas, and so forth, all suck. There's a reason why we admire people who put themselves through college while working full time, which is that it's really hard, and most of us aren't up to it, regardless of the contents of our studies.

On the issue of relevance, I've met plenty of students who hate taking history classes because they're not relevant, and others who have plenty of immediate practical concerns and/or goals but find history a welcome release into impracticality. Some students like premodern history for precisely this reason.