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John P. Calvert, Published January 23 2011

Good news: Dropout rate is high

Higher education has lately discovered that too many students are dropping out before graduation. Nationally, only 57 percent of those enrolled in four-year public institutions get degrees, even after six years, and locally it’s even lower. At the University of North Dakota, just 54 percent graduate; at North Dakota State University, it’s 47 percent; and Minnesota State University Moorhead reports just 40 percent. Students commonly spend years on campuses only to leave degreeless and in debt. So, there is a fever to keep them enrolled, somehow, until they get a diploma.

But high dropout rates are an excellent thing. When I query profs about their gripes, I usually hear something like, “too many students who aren’t college material.” A large body of research agrees: Most kids enroll not to learn but to socialize, party and enjoy an extended adolescence.

Still others are pressured to enroll. The entire culture warns them that without a degree they will be condemned to menial jobs and blighted lives. This is so firmly a part of what “everyone knows” that 10 angels swearing to the contrary could not disturb it.

But in fact, the official rate of unemployment among college graduates under age 25 is 9.2 percent, just about what it is among the general population. And underemployment – work that is part time or doesn’t require college – is far higher. A degree doesn’t assure prosperity; half of recent graduates are “boomerangers” who have moved back in with their parents.

If most students enroll for the wrong reasons, the campuses, too, have questionable motives for accepting them. They seek athletic prowess, correct ethnicity and the status that supposedly comes with sheer growth. And as state funding declines, they rely on hordes of tuition-bearing bodies to compensate. Weak students are strong assets because they tend to repeat courses and take longer to graduate.

In this mix, student quality is unimportant. Of the more than 2,000 four-year colleges, only a few dozen are “selective,” meaning that they reject as many applicants as they accept. Otherwise, more than 80 percent admit virtually everyone who applies, including those whose low ACT or SAT scores should be red flags.

And many who graduate do so only because standards have been lowered to accommodate them. Thus, kids who find history too boring or math too hard may select badminton and hip-hop studies instead. As such, the “education” most students get is a sham. In 2005, a Pew survey of 14,000 college seniors found that most couldn’t do simple calculations like comparing credit card offers or follow the argument of a newspaper editorial. Only 31 percent were “proficient” in reading prose. If some vital public interest is served by giving degrees to kids who can scarcely read, I don’t know what it is.

Academia proposes to reduce dropout rates while enrolling everyone. But this isn’t Lake Wobegon. Half our kids are below average, and average kids can’t make proper use of college. By their self-serving admissions practices, the campuses have created the problem they deplore.

And they have no incentive to change. If reform is to come, it must come by the pressure of legislatures, alumni associations, donors, or other agencies that care about quality education. Meanwhile, let’s hope the high dropout rates continue.


Calvert is a retired college teacher and occasional contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages.

E-mail JohnPCalvert@aol.com