The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

College Completion Rates and Suggestions For Improvement

Guest blogger who runs a very useful website for students and parents-GoCollege

by Thomas J Hanson, Editor ,

Poor college completion rates - suggested solutions even worse.

The results of a first-of-its-kind study recently graced the front pages of the Boston Globe. In Hub Grads Come Up Short in College, James Vaznis revealed an all too similar refrain regarding college completion rates.

Of the members of the graduating class from Boston high schools for the year 2000 who had gone on to higher education, nearly two-thirds of the class had not earned a college diploma seven years after they had begun collegiate studies.

The findings were particularly troublesome for a city that has touted its steadily increasing college enrollment rates over the last few years. In simplest terms, Boston does see more high school graduates enrolled in college than does the nation as a whole, but the college completion rate for those students is actually lower than the national average.


City of Prestigious Institutions
The news hit the city, often dubbed the ‘”Center of American Higher Education,” extremely hard. The Globe editorial staff penned a companion piece the same day entitled, Getting in Isn’t Enough.

Stating it was time “to take a long and deep look into the gulf between ‘getting in’ and ‘getting through college’,” the editorial revealed some incredibly dismal numbers.


* students attending two-year community colleges had a 12 percent graduation rate.
* students attending four-year public state colleges had approximately a 33 percent graduation rate.
* students at four-year, private colleges managed the best rate at 56 percent.

Another revealing statistic, not evident in the editorial but on display in Vaznis’ article, referred to the completion status calculation more fully. It seems that not all of the 675 students who were deemed to have graduated had actually earned a bachelor’s degree. Also included in the completion rate were students who had earned either a certificate or an associate’s degree.

Thomas M. Menino, the Mayor of Boston, responded by announcing a major initiative. It set forth a goal of increasing the college graduation rate by 50 percent for this year’s high school seniors. In addition, the Mayor went on to suggest a goal of doubling the rate a second time for those students who are currently high school sophomores.

“We want to make sure all our kids in Boston get a good education and graduate from college,” Menino is quoted by the Globe. “It’s not just about getting into college but how to stay in college.”
As but another step that has been uttered time and again across America in recent years, officials indicated it was time the city school system did a better job of preparing its high school students for success after graduation. That was followed by the traditional hue and cry to raise K-12 education standards.

And last but not least, the traditional basis for pushing all students towards earning a bachelor’s degree was postured once again.

“A graduate of a four-year college will make almost $1 million more than a high school graduate over a lifetime,” Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, told the Globe. “We need to help students every step of the way earn the prize: a college degree.”

The Wrong Focus
The state of public education has focused on the K-12 system in recent years. During that time frame, higher education has earned a free pass. In fact, the general consensus from most folks is that America’s colleges and universities represent the best of the educational system in our country.

However, Mark Schneider, the vice president for new educational initiatives at the American Institutes for Research, offers a very contrasting viewpoint. In The Costs of Failure Factories in American Higher Education, Schneider asks, “If there is virtually universal agreement that American high schools are failing, how do our colleges and universities measure up against such a low benchmark?”

Turns out not very well.

WikipediaIt can be difficult comparing data but Schneider does his best to compare apples to apples. However, he does note one specific advantage for higher education: colleges generally use a six year window as the norm for completing the four years of study while high school calculations are based on a four year timeframe.

“The median high school graduation rate, for example, is 77 percent,” writes Schneider, “but the median post-secondary graduation rate is more than twenty-five points lower. While American high schools graduate about three-fourths of their students in four years, American colleges graduate only about half of their students in six.”

Schneider indicates that there are also significant differences by type of institution. But the key notion is a simple one: “The low high school graduation rates that have long been decried as a failure of America’s education system are mirrored in even lower college graduation rates.”

In addition, the long-standing differences in high school graduation rates based on race and ethnicity have led to expressions such as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But while public education K-12 is often labeled in such a manner, it must be duly noted that colleges and universities also see large gaps in post-secondary completion rates when comparing whites to blacks and Hispanics.

College Does Not Work for Many Students
One positive is that the poor completion rates are finally catching people’s attention. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently launched a new initiative that seeks to sort through the poor completion rates of college bound students, particularly those who have chosen the community college route.

In the Globe article, there is at least some acknowledgment of the “enormous barriers facing urban high school graduates.” Vaznis points out that many of the individuals being discussed within the study are the very first members of their respective families to actually attend college.

The writer notes further that the study did not specifically address reasons for the low graduation rates. But he speculates, quite soundly, that “these students often have financial problems, some are raising children, and others are held back by a need to retake high school courses in college because they lack basic skills.”

In regards to the issue of college preparedness, a short time ago we discussed the words of Marty Nemko, a man dubbed the “The Ralph Nader of Education.” At that time we offered what Nemko calls his ‘killer statistic.’

Marty Nemko“For those aspiring college students who finished in the bottom 40 percent of their high school classes, but went on to attempt to secure a four-year degree right out of high school, roughly two-thirds had studied for the better part of eight and a half years without obtaining a diploma.”

In simplest terms, those students who lack the ability to handle the rigor associated with college are unsuccessful when they give college a try.

Nemko adds that “only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.”

Yet four-year colleges admit and accept funds “from hundreds of thousands of such students each year.” However, according to the data we have just reviewed, those same schools fail to see these students through the process of completing their degree program.

Nemko pulls no punches with his summary assessments.

“Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item, while research is a profit center.

“As a result, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with necessary small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students. At many colleges, only a small percentage of the typical student’s classroom hours will have been spent with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor.”

And as for the quality of instruction, well:

“The more prestigious the institution, the more likely that faculty members are hired and promoted much more for their research than for their teaching. Professors who bring in big research dollars are almost always rewarded more highly than a fine teacher who doesn’t bring in the research bucks.”

Square Pegs, Round Holes
Ultimately we have the worst of all potential situations: students who do not have the academic ability to handle the level of rigor that college must demand combined with ill-equipped institutions of higher education that seem incapable of helping these students succeed.

That issue is then exacerbated by education officials who continue to insist that all we must do is simply raise standards further and that by doing so, somehow the square peg, round hole malady facing us will disappear.

Unfortunately, those same officials also insist that the only path to success in life is by way of a college education. It is the same nonsense that brought forth the No Child Left Behind Act and the oxymoron, proficiency for all.

The notion that college is for everyone really just pushes NCLB to the K-16 arena. It is the fundamental belief that every child regardless of innate ability must be placed on a ‘bachelor’s degree or bust’ path, followed by the assumption that every student is capable of such academic rigor.

Benjamin LyonsThis is a false and damaging assumption. A bachelor’s degree for every student is no more viable than setting forth a goal of a masters or a PhD for every student. Yet, would we ever in our right minds suggest that such a standard is possible?

It is time that those in charge came to their senses and acknowledged that other approaches to learning are possible. It is time to recognize that hands on vocational schooling and working apprenticeships can be just as viable for helping students learn as the traditional academic teaching tools of reading and writing.

If only our educational experts could grasp that our country needs skilled workers as well as college graduates they might embark on a different path, one that creates multiple educational opportunities for our youngsters based on a goal of helping all students succeed.

What we do not need is more high school or college drop outs. But instead of examining the real issue, a one size fits all approach to education, we opt to tinker with standards and expectations, then set goals that are beyond the reach of many students.

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