Fixing the College-Dropout Problem

(Charles Mostoller)
Too many students have credits and debt but no degree.

Conservatives often take aim at the “college for all” mindset, the idea that education policy should be geared toward getting as many Americans into college as possible. In fact, a recent issue of National Review had no fewer than three articles that touched on the subject. But as sound as educational policy geared toward vocational training and apprenticeships may be, economists forecast that through next year, the American economy will have 55 million job openings, 65 percent of which will require some form of postsecondary education. Tens of millions of Americans will still need degrees.

The problem is, our colleges and universities aren’t particularly good at producing them. That’s where UC Berkeley professor David Kirp’s new book, The College Dropout Scandal, comes in.

The statistics Kirp lays out are stark and shocking: 34 million Americans over 25 have some college credits but no degree, meaning that many have debt without the career options that a degree permits. Dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed as graduates and four times as likely to default on their loans. Fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate in six years; the percentage is below 50 at public schools.

But Kirp also goes beyond statistics, laying out specific examples of why students drop out. On the student side of things, the reasons tend to be personal and cultural. First-generation students, who make up more than a third of undergraduates, often feel out of place and alone on campus, plagued by a sneaking suspicion that they aren’t really cut out for college and easily disillusioned by setbacks. They also don’t have access to valuable reservoirs of knowledge about college life that other students do. And “first-gen” or no, many poorer students drop out because their financial aid runs out near the end of the year; often they are only a few hundred dollars short.

Administrators and professors make mistakes too: According to Kirp, 94 percent of professors never receive training in how to teach, resulting in many disregarding instruction for research or believing they teach well when they do not. Administrators of large public universities often fail to adequately coordinate with the community colleges that provide many of their undergraduates, and they ignore relevant data about which students are thriving and which are struggling.

There isn’t one solution to this very big problem, and Kirp cautions against top-down fixes. For example, tying government funds to graduation rates could make colleges shy away from admitting poor students, who are less likely to graduate. It would also worsen already-perverse institutional imbalances: Poorly performing schools, which are less likely to have the resources needed to help at-risk students, are penalized under this system, and grade inflation is rewarded.

So Kirp dives into the numerous small fixes that are needed, and his examples are why the book was such a refreshing read. There’s no focus on the mononymous institutions — Harvard, Stanford, Yale (although Amherst makes a brief appearance) — that contain a tiny minority of students but receive an overwhelming amount of press coverage. He highlights the schools whose names need acronyms: USF, the CUNY system, UT Austin, among others. Large, affordable institutions like these are where most of the students are, as well as where most of the dropouts come from. The 75,000 students at the University of South Florida outnumber the undergraduate population of the eight Ivies combined.

I won’t spell out all of Kirp’s exact prescriptions — each of the six schools he investigates uses its own mix of solutions — but there are some broad conclusions to draw. Schools that wish to graduate more students should take a data-driven approach to their policies. Compiling massive quantities of grades and demographic information is critical for identifying which, how, and when students are falling behind. One result of these investigations is that massive lecture-style classes, often needed to make up for subpar high-school educations, tend to bewilder students and set them back. Georgia State, seeing that half of students were failing required math courses, decided to replace them with smaller classes in computer labs. The number of students failing fell to 19 percent.

The lecture-class problem links to a larger one: There is too little focus in too many schools on the quality of teaching. Many professors who came up through an old-school, lecture-oriented pedagogy mistakenly believe that the format is the most efficient for conveying information. In fact, it’s inferior to more active class styles that engage students, such as the “flipped classroom,” in which students learn the basic information as homework, using class time to explore more advanced concepts. On top of that, without effective and frequent evaluations, many professors will shrug off students’ failures as a sign of the course’s rigor or a lack of student ability — a dangerous and self-defeating mindset.

Kirp also highlights the need to enhance students’ sense of belonging, with programs such as student-to-student mentoring and check-ins on low-income and first-generation students. Critics who object to such things as “coddling” are wrong; schools have a responsibility to make sure students are learning. Sink-or-swim is an inadequate ethic for administrators to have.

This leads into the most countercultural aspect of the universities Kirp lifts up. They all eschew attracting elite students in favor of teaching underserved ones. Taking their public character seriously, many of these schools consciously favor local, less academically successful students over the applicants who would boost their US News and World Report rankings. Schools such as Long Beach State and USF kept application requirements low even as their reputations soared; they also maintained “feeder school” agreements with local community colleges. Their presidents view themselves as serving and educating a wide public, not jockeying for spots on a rankings board.

Kirp has written an important book, highlighting an underreported problem. He’s lifted up the kind of institutions and leaders we need more of: those who leave behind the prestige contests of American meritocracy and quietly work for the common good.


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