College dropout rate is predictable

Repeating something often enough does not necessarily make it true.  I have reference now to the mantra about the value of a bachelor’s degree (“More on the College Dropout Crisis,” The New York Times, May 26).

The present dropout rate at less elite colleges is more than 40 percent.  As a result, these students leave with no degree but with debt.  There is no single reason they drop out.  But I submit that they were not college material in the first place. By that I mean they lacked the wherewithal to handle college-level work – or at least what used to be college-level work.

The remediation they receive is not enough.  I liken their situation to athletics.  No amount of coaching and practice will turn all students into varsity athletes.  Yes, there will be some improvement in both cases.  But it will not be sufficient to make a real difference in outcomes.

Rather than persist in the fiction that college is for everyone, a myth which will only exacerbate matters, I urge giving far greater respect and importance to vocational education starting in middle school.  Germany serves as a model.  It begins sorting out students early in their education.  Those deemed able to handle academic work go to universities.  Others make a solid living based on the training they received through apprenticeships.

But the U.S. views vocational education as inferior to academic education.  As a result, we treat it as a stepchild.  The monetary value of a college education depends largely on the major. Rather than tell young people that without a college degree they have a bleak future, let’s tell them the truth about vocational education, where welders earn $100,000 annually and have no student debt to pay off.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “College dropout rate is predictable”

  1. Seems blindingly obvious that a college degree in a major with limited earning potential is a bad investment financially of the student’s/parents’ $ and the student’s 4+ years.

    Seems so obvious that most of the students falling within this group (as well as their parents) probably recognize this fact. If so, it’s likely that these students, in deciding to go to college, are relying on non-financial considerations.

    At least one consideration is US society’s implicit view that people who work with their hands are somehow inferior socially/culturally to people who work at a desk in an office (or the related view that people w/o a college degree are likewise somehow inferior socially/culturally to people with as college degree). Many/most parents (including those who themselves do not have a college degree) would much prefer that their child select a husband/wife who has a college degree, preferring a low-earning college graduate to a higher-earning non-college graduate as the prospective husband/wife. There probably is at least some rational basis for this bias. Having a college degree evidences the ability to hang in there for four years of academic work + my guess is that college graduates — on average — have fewer serious emotional problems and are less likely to engage in self-destructive or other-destructive behavior (i.e., drugs, crime, alcoholism) than people who have no college. Of course, these suppositions are based on averages, not individuals. College graduate X’s college degree may reflect the ability to be drunk for four years while paying buddies to write his papers for him or may reflect the ability to play football well enough that the profs give the goof-off student passing grades to preserve his eligibility. College graduate Y may have all sorts of emotional problems while non-college graduate A may be a completely stable model citizen.

    The bottom line, for me, is not so much that high schools should offer more voc ed but rather that high schools (and the media) should emphasize that voc ed students who develop marketable skills can have just as — or even more — fulfilling lives than college graduates. Speaking as a retired attorney, it seems likely that there are a lot of plumbers, carpenters, electricians, hair stylists, and lab techs whose 40-hrs/week, leave-the-job-at-the-job-when-you-go-home ability, and relative insulation from “office politics” provided them with superior lifestyles.

    Finally, another major consideration is that — from the high school senior’s viewpoint — college looks like four (or more) years of fun (sleeping late, booze, sex, drugs, hanging out with friends any time day or night). By contrast, getting a job at age 18 looks like hard work and a lot less fun.


  2. Labor Lawyer: Unfortunately, everyone thinks lack of a four-year degree dooms a person to an inferior lifestyle. I know so many people who make a comfortable living working with their hands. They enjoy the work and have no student debt to pay off. I think the sheepskin obsession is going to leave many young people with deep regrets down the line.


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