The Slowdown in Higher Education: Michael Hout

The Slowdown in Higher Education: Michael Hout

October 13, 2019 0 By Ronny Jaskolski


[MUSIC PLAYING] We know that a
college education is key to economic success
for individuals. It’s also part of the
national success strategy and the knowledge economy. Ironically, the United
States set the pace in college graduation rates
for most of the 20th century. Then suddenly, in the late
1970s, we sloughed off. We flattened out. And as the knowledge
economy becomes more central to the overall
economy, we’re falling behind. The biggest waste in
colleges and universities today is the low
graduation rate. Only half of the
people who start at a college or university
finish with a degree. Many young people begin
their college experience at a community college. Among them only 15%
ever get a degree. When looking at the slowdown
in college graduation rates, many people look to high school
and say the students just aren’t well enough prepared. Fortunately, the National Center
for Educational Statistics has been collecting data on
this going back to the 1960s. Students today are
actually better prepared for college work than
they were back in the 1960s. On average, they take an
extra year of lab science. They take an extra year
of foreign language. They’re taking more
English, so much so that they’re taking more
than four years of English in high school. The real question for me
is who’s failing here – the students or the colleges? In his first address to
Congress back in 2009, President Obama
articulated a goal of getting half of young
Americans a college degree. Having looked at the data, I say
we can’t get there from here. The colleges lack the
capacity to actually educate half of America’s youth today. A few years ago, economists
John Bound and Sarah Turner published an article called
“The Cohort Squeeze”. What they found was that
when the number of 18- to 20-year-olds goes up,
the college graduation rate goes down. Meanwhile, when the 18- to
20-year-old population shrinks, the graduation rate goes up. The number of degrees
doesn’t change over time, but the rate is a function
of how many students there are, how many
young people there are. When we look at the data on
the selective leading public universities in each
state, admission rates are falling at all
the big state systems. That’s characteristic
of a system that is operating at capacity. We either have to build more
colleges and universities to increase our
capacity or we have to be more efficient
in educating the young people in the colleges
and universities we do have. To sort out whether it’s the
students or the colleges, we can compare the
middle ability students at the top universities
with the top students at the middle universities. This gives us insight into
what students bring with them to college and what colleges
and universities provide in the way of
educational experiences once the students arrive. High achieving students who went
to middle range universities had the middle range dropout
rate typical of those colleges and universities. Meanwhile, when struggling
students beat the odds and got into top
universities, they also had those high
graduation rates typical of the top universities. The evidence actually
shows remarkably that the students in the
middle of the ability pool are the ones who get the
most out of a college degree. Think of it this way. For the kids at
the top, the choice is, do I invent the next
Facebook before or after I graduate? Whereas for that kid in
the middle of the pack, the choice is between managing
the local Coke bottling plant or driving a truck out of it. That study identified
the endowment rate as the deciding
factor because not only were the top
universities more selective, they also had more
resources that they could put into the
educational experience. This works on the financial
aid side in an obvious way. They can focus on
academics if they have sufficient financial aid. If they don’t, they have
to take a part-time job, and that detracts
from academics. Endowment also helps
provide academic services. Colleges and universities
hire professionals that help students see the clear
path through the university, and they invest in their
website and their curriculum development to make
it transparent so that students can get through. We aren’t all born knowing
how you get from freshman dorm to the graduation line. It has to be shown to us. Students drop out when they
run out of time and money. They don’t lose their
aspiration for a college degree. They just hit a point where
they can’t keep taking loans and they can’t keep
putting off starting work. And when they leave,
they seldom come back. Some universities
have the endowment it takes to produce success. Their students get the
student services they need. Others are struggling. Graduation rates have fallen as
state support has fallen off. In order to support those
struggling universities, we’re going to have to find
a supplement to those state funds. It’s not clear to
me where that money will come from if states
and the federal government don’t step up. If America’s colleges
and universities are going to educate
half of the population, we’re going to have to
find the money somewhere, or else we won’t be competitive
in the 21st century economy. [MUSIC PLAYING]