Arnold Kling  

Important Data on Access to College

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From an column in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent [UPDATE/correction]: in a comment, Adelman writes that this is the bottom 20 percent] of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later. That figure is from a study cited by Clifford Adelman, a former research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education

Access to college is not exactly the Holy Grail, is it?

Read the whole piece.


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Luke G. writes:

Oooh yes, I know this all too well, as a college professor and student advisor. I think it is downright immoral to accept most poor-achieving students into college, regardless of how much they might want to, due to their extremely poor chances of success. We sell false hope and they pay the bill off for years.

Yet the college's goal is, too often, accepting as many students as possible for the sake of this semester's bottom line. Sad.

GU writes:

Charles Murray has been saying this for a while. The same applies to law school, as Richard Sander has pointed out.

Many people see "access to college", which is a codeword for affirmative action and easy government loans, as an equality issue. They seem to have forgotten that not everyone is equally smart and motivated to learn and succeed.

Dan Weber writes:

We need to lower the standards more!

Bob Knaus writes:

Europeans I've talked to are amazed at how easy it is to get into college in the US. Trying to put the best spin I can on it, I've told them "In the US we have a high tolerance for failure."

Marty Nemko writes:

I am the author of that article. Low admission standards at U.S. colleges has a devastating effect on all stakeholders:
-- the low performing students graduate at astonishingly low rates.
-- the fully qualified students have their education dumbed down as a result of the presence of so many weak students in their classes
-- the professors, who must try to deal with an enormous range of student preparedness.
-- the employers, who are consumers of the poorly educated college students
-- the taxpayer, who heavily subsidizes the low-quality education

Eric Gilson writes:

Interesting article, though it is missing a link between the college preparedness statistics and the student satisfaction data. I believe that there is a correlation between dissatisfaction and the student's ability to preform at a college level. Hence, if schools stop accepting students that will not preform well, they will most likely increase student satisfaction.
I am a current college student so this article hits particularly close to home. I see the trend towards more students for more money at my school. This is actually destroying the small school feel that many people I know came here for.

Dr. T writes:

Eric Gilson is correct. Some colleges accept so many students that classrooms are packed, dorm rooms made for two students contain three, and that the faculty don't know most of the students majoring in their subjects.

My daughter finishes her first year of college next week. She says the teaching is just like that of her non-honors high school classes, and she feels she wasted a year.

This continual dilution of college with students who wouldn't have gotten into community colleges a generation ago has made a joke of college education. A bachelor's degree today counts for less than an associate's degree did 20 years ago. If this continues, our grandchildren who aspire to be professionals will be in school when they are 30.

We need some colleges to become deflationary: tough admission standards, good teaching, high expectations of the college students, and degrees that mean the graduate actually gained useful knowledge and experience.

ajb writes:

Sadly, the currently popular ratings work against schools that crack down. US News actually penalizes schools with low grad rates and rewards those with high grad rates. This means that schools that impose higher standards are indistinguishable from those who simply accept substandard students. Those with no standards at all look good. Furthermore, tough-love schools like Caltech or Chicago get pressured to ease up on requirements while suffering in the ratings. Professional schools (JD/MD/MBA) do not adequately discount high grades from easy schools vs. low grades from tough ones.

Hollywood_Freaks writes:

My brother was in the bottom 40% of his graduating class. He waited five years before entering college. When he did, he graduated in four years. Does he fit into that statistic?

Or does it only include those who entered college directly after high school?

Clifford Adelman writes:

Since my study was quoted, let's get it right: it wasn't the bottom 40%: it was the bottom 20%. There's a big difference, but people who want to tell bad stories will tell them no matter what. It's called "the propaganda of numbers."

AJay writes:

The problem with colleges is not low standards but useless material. The universities have put together a 4-year curriculum that is mostly useless for many degrees, and the useful parts are either lost in the muck or taught incomprehensibly. It's ridiculous to read all these people asking for higher standards on the dreck that's normally taught, rather than asking for changes in the content itself. The future is in allowing people to build their own curriculum based on what they enjoy and what skills are in demand and actually having employers judge people based on their chosen curriculum. I know, what a concept! Much of this will be done online by new entrants to the education game and it will destroy the establishment in the process. There are big changes coming; hand-wringing about quality is merely the posturing of a misguided elite.

Dan Weber writes:

People who graduate from college earn more, but that doesn't necessarily mean that their college experience is what gets them more money. The article mentions that those folks were already destined to be high earners anyway, but there's another reason: it's legal to discriminate against non-college-graduates.

I've suggested it before: make it illegal for employers to ask about education, the same way it's illegal for them to ask about veteran status or marital status or race or religion.

Universities have resorted to the cold knife test for entry. The result has been a compete, across-the-board dumbing down of university education. The high schools have followed suit, since they now have to do less to prepare students for college. Thus does it trickle down. Someone needs to set up a university with real standards that teaches students how the world really works. It should be extremely hard to get into, and the classes should be extremely challenging. Only the best and the brightest should be let in, and there should still be a 50% attrition rate. SUch a school, I predict, would raise the bar for other schools, not to mention turn out some educated people for a change. I think companies would really like that, too.

Dan Weber writes:

Someone needs to set up a university with real standards that teaches students how the world really works. It should be extremely hard to get into,

If it's really hard to get into, most people won't even bother applying.

Only the best and the brightest should be let in, and there should still be a 50% attrition rate.

Why would the best and brightest subject themselves to such a thing? You would need a HUGE premium at the end, and the best and brightest can already command big salaries.

(A 50% attrition rate isn't good or bad. It just is.)

Why do people try to get into Harvard and Yale? Prestige. Much of the gloss has been lost on that prestige for various reasons, but the fact of the matter is that people are status-seekers, and there are a few hard-to-get-into colleges like them that people try to get into for reasons of gaining prestige. To get into and graduate from such a university would elevate their status. People are more than willing to put themselves through rigorous criteria in order to gain status. It's all part of being a social mammal. Money is not the end-all, be-all. Money is just one way of measuring success and gaining status. But it's prestige and status which is the thing. I know it's not the politically correct thing to say, but it's true.

RSherwood writes:

I was last in my class in high school, yet earned a 3.98 for my AA, a 3.0 for my BA, and a 4.0 for my MS.
However, college success is not related to financial or any other success. My high school drop-out friends were making over $60k/yr by the time I got my BA, and I have yet to break $30k. I will this year, solely because I became a truck driver. College is not the end-all-be all.
Kids in the lower percentiles, even if they could do well in college, would often be better off not going. Many in my situation claim college was worth it (college was fun), but, I wonder how much saying it was worth it is merely refusing to admit that such a large investment was detrimental.

We have accepted the entirely false premise that everyone, or even most people, should go to college. Not everyone should. Most people should have been trained to enter some sort of trade in middle and high school.

Michael Bishop writes:

I more or less agree. BUT, if our pre-k through 12th grade education system was of higher quality, many more students would be able to benefit from traditional four year college degrees. I'm unconvinced that there are major social losses associated with encouraging people to attend college.

Jaap Weel writes:

Here's an entirely unsubstantiated, unscientific hunch of mine that I think is in some way relevant here.

Americans are squeamish about trade schools. The closest thing to trade schools that exists within the subsidized system is community colleges, and the course catalogs of community colleges all read like derivatives of dilutions of knock-offs of Harvard. You can study Astronomy at many of them! The odd cultural tendency to hold up liberal arts as the one true standard of all education is exemplified by the names of such majors as "secretarial science." (I take it that secretarial science operates by scholarly conjectures and learned refutations about the operation of staplers and office automation software?)

There is something inegalitarian about the European tendency to give in to the fact that some fraction of students are not suited for liberal artsy education, and that they are better off complementing their basic reading-writing-'rithmetic with something useful than with courses designed to prepare them for a liberal arts degree they'll never get. If you want to be particularly uncharitable toward the Europeans, you could say that European trade school systems are nothing but a cog in a corporatist machine of occupational licensing, trade associations, unions, superfluous certifications, and other assorted protections against the dreaded Polish Plumber. But there is also something realistic about it.

Of course, the trans-Atlantic divide is often more about terminology than about content. The "secretarial science" major at a community college may well have the exact same content as its less pretentiously named equivalent at a Dutch trade school, maybe with an additional general-ed requirement or two.

And the availability of a community college Astronomy major can be very useful for people who for reasons unrelated to their intelligence do not manage to march along the rungs of the educational ladder apace.

Maybe the right response to the American tendency to apply words like "science" and "college" to things that aren't is simply to shrug it off as cultural patina, ideological superstructure that changes nothing about the underlying infrastructure, if you'll excuse the Marxist phrasing. But I think that at least you can say that the attitude that makes it seem desirable to send people to college who end up never finishing may well be the same attitude that causes people to invent phrases like "secretarial science."

As more people who are not capable of succeeding in college attend, more drop out. The colleges don't want them to drop out, so they dumb down the classes (this is typically done by telling professors, "I don't want you do dumb down your classes, but . . ."). As they classes become easier, there is less pressure in the high schools to prepare the academic students (those to state that they are college-bound), so high school classes become easier. SInce student grades go up when that happens, nobody complains. The colleges retain more students, meaning they make more money, but the result in a spiral of ever-worsening education. That would be the downside.

J. Richardson writes:

I got a BS in biology with a minor in chemistry. Upon graduation it took me near a month and a half to find a job requiring my education. Basically, I read graphs, took water samples, and logged numbers into data sheets.

I ended up leaving and went to a 9 month trade school in Industrial Electricity. Upon graduation I applied for a job working on the Trans Alaska oil pipeline for my 5yr apprenticeship. I was hired at more than double what I was making with my college education($35hr with room and board).
I worked there for 1yr then went back to the same trade school to get my welding certification. Now I make $47hr doing electrical and welding work (with room and board).

Currently I'm in my 2nd year of apprenticeship and I'm making 3 times more than my college education could do for me. Luckily I've been able to payoff my large loans without a problem (doing what trade school gave me, not college).

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