When you look at the national statistics on college graduation rates, there are two big trends that stand out right away. The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college — who show up on campus and enroll in classes — but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years. If you include community-college students in the tabulation, the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.High school grades and test scores have very little impact compared to the sort of family you come from. Obviously money is part of this -- everything is easier when you're not worried about money -- but it may be that psychological factors are even more important. People from working class homes suffer major culture shock in college and have trouble maintaining their focus on subjects that seem theoretical and irrelevant. It is just much easier to make it through college if you have been raised to think of it as a natural, even inevitable part of life that is somehow crucial to achieving a life like your parents'.
The second trend is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor — how much money his or her parents make. To put it in blunt terms: Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.
The article this comes from is about efforts at the University of Texas to overcome these psychological problems, and I am sure there are things that can be done in the way of counseling, special study sections, and so on. A little bit of encouragement can go a long way with some 19-year-olds.
But that, of course, means hiring more administrators and making college yet more expensive -- all those administrators that professors like to blame for running up costs don't get hired for no reason, you know, but because somebody thought they were vital to the college's mission. It also makes me wonder, why are universities so bad at giving this sort of support in the first place? Why do so many American students feel adrift and ignored in college, left on their own to cope with a bizarre array of courses and options that seem equally boring and irrelevant? Our huge multiversities are impressive in the breadth of learning and myriad other opportunities they offer, but do their size and scope actually detract from the core mission of educating young minds?