Last fall, a WAMU/NPR investigation found that the amazing academic turnaround at Ballou High School was a hoax. The perennially low-achieving school in D.C.’s poorest region had suddenly graduated and obtained college placements for its entire senior class in 2017. How did it happen? According to WAMU, school administrators practically eliminated graduation standards. Half of the graduates had 60 or more unexcused absences. Failing students received partial credit for missed assignments, saw their F’s changed to D’s, and took suspicious “credit recovery” courses near the end of the year. Many graduates could not even read or write, one teacher told WAMU.
Handing out diplomas like Halloween candy cannot have any social benefit, as it does not improve anyone’s skills or even provide an accurate signal of their underlying ability. What it does do is redistribute economic rewards. Due to the full high-school education on their résumés, the Ballou graduates will enjoy college and job placements unavailable to comparably-skilled dropouts who attended high schools that imposed real standards. The Ballou students’ gain is every prior graduate’s loss. Their credential will be devalued as people with lower skill levels claim it. Meanwhile, dropouts will become even more isolated and undesirable in the labor market.
Ballou is an extreme case of a more general problem in program evaluation. Advocates sometimes cite higher graduation rates as evidence of an intervention’s “success,” even when it is unclear whether objective skill gains actually occurred. A good example comes from a recent NBER paper on “Stay the Course,” a program that assigns low-income community-college students a social worker who helps them stay in school until they complete their degree. The results of the randomized controlled trial were mixed, with positive results found mainly for female participants after six semesters. Those women were significantly more likely than the control group to stay in college and earn an associate’s degree, but not to have a higher GPA.
The results are interesting, but the authors’ interpretation is problematic. They seem to equate persistent enrollment, particularly degree completion, with skill gains. Their back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis finds that the program would pay for itself in four years as long as the treatment group earns the same as other workers with comparable years of education (mainly associate’s degrees). But how much of the earnings boost will be due to actual skill development versus mere credentialism? As we saw with the Ballou example, an empty credential generates no social gain and should not be counted as a benefit in any program evaluation. Of course, Ballou is credentialism taken to an extreme. Students who graduated because of Stay the Course probably learned something more than the control group, but how much more? Without knowing the answer, any cost-benefit analysis associated with the program will not be valid.
I understand the desire for higher graduation rates. From an individual’s perspective, degree completion is essential to making an educational investment pay off. From a public-policy perspective, however, we want students to learn real, useful skills — not just get an extra line on their résumés. The solution to the “completion crisis,” therefore, should involve more than programs aimed at obtaining the credential students have invested in. We should also consider whether it was wise to make that investment in the first place. Redirecting students into educational tracks more appropriate for their abilities and interests could generate the bigger long-term payoff.