Students who dropped out of college after just one year (between 2003-2008) have cost Kansas taxpayers over $93 million dollars according to a study released this month by the American Institute for Research (AIR). First-year college student drop outs cost the nation over $9 billion in state and federal appropriations and grants.
"Finishing the First Lap: The Cost of First-Year Student Attrition in America's Four-Year Colleges and Universities" by AIR used the U.S. Department of Education's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to tally drop-out data from 1,521 four-year colleges and universities. While 528 public universities ate up the state appropriations, the bulk of state and federal grants went to students at the 73 for-profit and 902 not-for-profit (private) schools.
The knee-jerk response of public agencies across the United States has been predictable: what can we do to keep all of these students in college? Across the United States, both commissions of higher education and public relations-sensitive higher administrators have been demanding that more college students be retained at all costs—a reckless but contagious policy I have labeled “retentionitis.”
Professors in the classroom have a much better idea of the many reasons for why so many college freshmen drop out.
Thanks to the overtesting for minimum proficiency that has decimated K-12 education under No Child Left Behind and seriously inflated grades at many schools, more students are graduating with a false sense of being college-able. While many college-ready students excel in the freshman year, many others hit the cold reality of rigorous college coursework and find they can barely handle the remedial sections, let alone the regular classes.
Other students conditioned to test-prep are unprepared to read and think independently. Some have never developed a study ethic. Indeed some never come to class, and thanks to federal privacy laws, professors cannot tell this to parents who inquire. And some high schools make students feel like they are failures if they do not aspire to a four-year college degree, even though the student wants to be an auto mechanic or plumber and our society desperately needs their skills.
Data supports faculty observations. ACT finds that only 25 percent of ACT test-takers are college-ready. Other studies confirm that selective private schools average about one-fourth students who are not college-ready, non-selective public universities have about half, and only one-fourth of community college students are college-ready. That is roughly the proportion of community college students who aspire to a two-year associates degree and actually complete it.
To meet artificial goals for international ranking, educational governing bodies are insisting that public universities graduate more students in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of grade inflation. Retain or else! Only K.U. among the Kansas schools appears likely to increase retention by raising admissions standards which may lower enrollment. Our other Kansas public universities are numbers driven, and in a tuition-driven system what administrator can rebel?
And with state funds stretched to attempt to subsidize more unqualified students, the qualified students are having to pay a higher proportion of their educational costs.
There is an old and erroneous legend about college professors telling students on the first day: “Look to the left. Look to the right. At the end of this course, one of you will not be here.” Instead, we are more likely to hear in the near future: “Look to the left. Look to the right. Everyone gets to pass and graduate. Those who do the hard work to earn your degree will see your classmates also walk across the stage and receive that degree for half the work.”
For those who insist that a bachelors degree is the new high school diploma when it comes to getting a job, the tragedy of retention is that this degree may represent no more knowledge and skill than the high school diploma represented.