The Wrong Conversation
The annual college-admissions tournament is in full swing, encouraged by newspapers and magazines that have made a good business of promoting status anxiety among parents and students by touting the latest rankings and secrets of Ivy League admissions offices. But in reality, the universe of students with the luxury of being overwhelmed by long application forms, AP courses, extracurricular activities, and grueling SAT-prep classes is small: Only 11 percent of college-bound seniors enroll at institutions that reject a majority of their applicants. For most students, the hard part of college isn’t getting in -- it’s getting out.
The numbers are stark: Only 37 percent of college students graduate in four years, less than two-thirds finish in six. For low-income and minority students, graduation rates are even worse. This is happening at the worst possible moment in history -- the market for unskilled labor has already gone global and higher-skill jobs aren’t far behind. We aren’t going to be bigger or cheaper than our Chinese and Indian competitors in the 21st century; our only option is to be smarter. Yet we’re squandering the aspirations and talent of hundreds of thousands of college students every year.
Clearly, major changes are needed.
We can start by restructuring high schools, which continue to act as if most students don’t go to college when in fact most of them do. Two-thirds of high school graduates enter postsecondary education soon after graduation, and more than 80 percent matriculate by their mid-20s. But many arrive unaware that their high school diploma doesn’t mean they’re ready for college work. Far from it. More than 25 percent of college freshmen have to take remedial courses in basic reading, writing, or math -- victims of high schools that systematically fail to enroll many of their college-bound students in college-prep classes.
It’s true that many students arrive in high school behind academically, but high schools need to buckle down and prepare them for college anyway because that’s where they’re going, ready or not. College-prep curricula should be the norm unless students and parents decide otherwise.
We also need to make college more affordable for first-generation college students at the greatest risk of dropping out. We’ve been losing ground here in recent years -- federal Pell Grants pay a far smaller portion of college costs than they once did, while states and institutions are shifting many of their student-aid dollars to so-called “merit” programs that mostly benefit middle-and upper-income families. Meanwhile, the ongoing erosion of state funding for public colleges and universities, combined with the unwillingness of those institutions to look hard at becoming more efficient, has produced huge increases in tuition.
As a result, low-income college students have an unpleasant choice: Take out massive student loans that greatly limit their options after graduation, or work full-time while they’re in school, and thereby greatly decrease their odds of graduating. In addition to a renewed federal commitment to college affordability, state lawmakers should resist the urge to pour vast amounts of money into need-blind merit aid programs. And institutions should think twice before taking the advice of for-profit "enrollment management" consultants who counsel reducing aid to the low-income students who need it most.
We need to get serious about creating universities that are actually designed to educate undergraduates successfully. Many institutions are far too concerned with status, research, athletics, fundraising -- almost everything except the quality of undergraduate education. Yet research has shown that those institutions that truly focus on high-quality instruction, combined with guidance and support in the critical freshmen year, have much higher graduation rates than their peers. Our colleges need to be held more accountable for the things that matter most: teaching their students well and helping as many as possible earn a degree.
The education secretary's commission appears poised to put higher education accountability squarely on the national agenda. That's a good thing. But the panel's proposal shouldn't focus on a No Child Left Behind-style top-down system based exclusively on standardized tests, government-defined performance goals, and mandated interventions. Rather, the panel should pursue accountability through transparency, mandating a major expansion of the performance data universities are required to create and report to students, parents, and the public at large.
Finally, the media should look beyond their own lives and aspirations when they shape the public perception of higher education and the admissions process. Caught up in the same status competition they help perpetuate, many simply don’t realize how many college students arrive unprepared, struggle financially, and never finish a degree. For the vast majority of students, and for the nation as a whole, the stakes are far higher than who gets into which Ivy League institution.