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US College Completion Rates Low

June 26, 2013

Eduoardo Porter’s Economix column in today’s NYTimes examines the US’ woeful college completion rates and concludes that lack of preparedness and not lack of loans is the problem. He’s right… but for the wrong reasons. As an economist he views education from a cost-benefit perspective. He seems flummoxed that students dropout of college:

And the most perplexing part of this accounting is that regardless of cost, getting a degree is the best financial decision a young American can make.

According to the O.E.C.D.’s report, a college degree is worth $365,000 for the average American man after subtracting all its direct and indirect costs over a lifetime. For women — who still tend to earn less than men — it’s worth $185,000.

College graduates have higher employment rates and make more money. According to the O.E.C.D., a typical graduate from a four-year college earns 84 percent more than a high school graduate. A graduate from a community college makes 16 percent more.

A college education is more profitable in the United States than in pretty much every other advanced nation. Only Irish women get more for the investment: $185,960 net.

I imagine that the “solution” many will offer to this lack of preparation will be more high stakes graduation tests or a course in personal economics to help students understand how to pay for college. These solutions are both rooted in the same false assumption: that the decision to attend and stay in college is purely an economic one. The ultimate “carrot” is earning a lot of money and by explaining to students how they can access the funds needed to attend college and showing them how they can “increase lifetime earnings” students will make the rational decision to enroll in college and stay in once enrolled.

The underlying problem is that many college-age students have no long-term perspective and a very limited sense of what they want to do with their lives. As a result, when faced with mounting debt, the costs of a car and a spiffy phone with a costly data plan, and an opportunity to make enough to get by, many students abandon college to give themselves a chance to figure out what they want to do with a college degree. When many colleges were underwritten by states it was a lot easier to spend four years earning a degree that you knew would eventually pay off… and you could use the four years to figure out what you wanted to do with the degree. Once a student figured that out– and given the number of times students change majors it is evident that it takes time to do so— college completion took care of itself. Students entering college with a clear focus and students entering selective colleges seldom drop out: it is the students who have no direction who fail to cross the finish line… and those tend to be the students from families with no college experience.

The solution to this problem is not more tests but more intensive and early college and career counseling… the very programs that fall by the wayside in high schools focusing on test preparation.  As noted in a blog post earlier this week, what students need in high school is the connection with one caring adult. That will be far more meaningful and helpful than passing standardized examinations in Algebra II.

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