A new report from the Gates Foundation’s Complete College America indicates that college enrollment is rising but college completion is not. The NYT reports:
Its report, which had the cooperation of 33 governors, showed how many of the students in states completed their degrees, broken down into different categories , including whether enrollment is full- or part-time, or at a two- or four-year institution.
The numbers are stark: In Texas, for example, of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only 2 of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only 7 of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, 5 graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree.
Our educational system isn’t nearly user-friendly enough. Modeled after aristocratic and elitists institutions in Reformation England, American undergraduate colleges still accept as a default model four years of full time residential study. A deep confusion about different kinds of education means that the model of liberal arts education is stretched to fit subjects like “business administration” and “water safety management” which have much more to do with training than with education in the classic sense.
Most of the students in postsecondary education these days are there because our excessively bureaucratized society demands largely meaningless paper credentials as the ticket of admission to jobs and careers with good prospects. We are creating artificial hoops and forcing young people to take ever longer and more expensive courses in hoop-jumping.
Liberal arts education is important, but four years of it is not something everyone wants or needs. The American educational system needs to offer much shorter, cheaper and more focused courses that teach skills. Degrees need to reflect “stuff learned” rather than “time served”; most of the credit hours students take in many of our educational institutions are time wasting fluff courses at which little is taught and less is learned. A great many jobs that now require BA or even MA degrees should be opened to people who can demonstrate basic competency at job related tasks like reading, writing and math.
The current system serves professors reasonably well and administrators spectacularly so, creating large educational bureaucracies that serve no noticeable social function other than providing jobs. Some groups of students are served reasonably well; but poor students, non-traditional students and the large number of people who are less interested in a classical liberal education than in acquiring the decorative pieces of paper that will allow them to compete for jobs a little higher up the food chain are generally forced to take far too many bad courses — without ever, in high school or ‘college’, ever acquiring the basic academic skills that might actually help them most. Students with other obligations are hit especially hard:
Among older students, as well as those who are awarded Pell grants, and black and Hispanic students, the report said, fewer than one in five of those attending college part time will earn a degree in six years.
“Time is the enemy of college completion,” the report said. “The longer it takes, the more life gets in the way of success.”
American education doesn’t need some tinkering around the edges. It needs a basic rethink. “Time served” traditional academic degrees need to become much less important; “stuff learned” certificates need to replace those degrees as the entry tickets to most careers. More of our educational institutions will need to shift away from imitating 17th century Oxford or 19th century Heidelberg and focus on helping large numbers of people acquire necessary knowledge and skills as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
Making education and training more efficient is one of the ways the United States can become a more productive and therefore a more affluent society. Making vital skills more accessible to the poor, to immigrants, and to struggling young people trying to get that first foothold on the ladder of life is one of the ways we can become a fairer, more equal society.