Monday, February 6, 2012

Stay in school, but not too long 
By Stan Jones 
Washington Post 

President Obama’s plan to make college more affordable is noble in intent but misses the mark in design. If the president and Congress were to focus on the real culprit of high college costs — poor college completion numbers — they could find rare common ground and make substantial headway on a problem that threatens to sink U.S. economic competitiveness.

The president was right when he noted that college is rapidly becoming unaffordable for many. Yet his threats to reduce federal funding to schools that don’t cut tuition may open the door for opponents to push back against reforms by invoking accusations of “price controls” and another “big-government takeover.” Data show that time, not tuition, is the enemy of college completion.

Today’s college students are dramatically different from the archetype of the U.S. undergraduate: A 2009 Public Agenda study drawing on Education Department data found that less than a quarter of U.S. college students attend full time at residential schools. Most students now commute to campus, balancing jobs, school and often family.

Higher education has done little to adjust to the changing needs of this new majority, with the result that students are spending longer than ever in college. The longer it takes to graduate, the more life gets in the way and the less likely that one will ever graduate. More time on campus also means that more is spent on college, adding high costs as another driver of dropouts. In this instance, time is money.

All this adds up to a startling fact: Less than half of U.S. college students graduate, the National Center for Education Statistics reported last year.



  1. "Higher education has done little to adjust to the changing needs of this new majority..."

    1. Citation needed.

    2. Without the hint of a concrete suggestion, this critique is useless to the reader. It's unclear to me how the writer believes that we can get students to do four years of full-time work by working part-time for just four years.

    1. If a student had turned this in, I'd demand evidence and logical reasoning.

    2. "It's unclear to me how the writer believes that we can get students to do four years of full-time work by working part-time for just four years."

      This strikes me, too, as the crux of the matter. If students don't have time to go to college full-time, then obviously they're not going to finish in four years, no matter when or how we schedule and structure the classes. I tend to think that the answer to the problem is to bring the value of a Pell grant relative to tuition back to what it was several decades ago, when one really could pay for college with a combination of a Pell grant, 10 hours of work study during the term, and a summer job. Going to college full-time is a more-than-40-hour-a-week job, and very few 18-22-year-olds can hold down *two* full-time jobs, or even a job and a half. A few more mature students can do it (usually with strong family support of some kind), but a lot fewer than think they can.

      Reading over some of the comments below, though, I'm inclined to think that perhaps the Pell grant should be contingent on successfully completing a full-time semester's worth of non-remedial community college classes in a semester (or, for those who need to work for pay, a pro-rated portion thereof), or perhaps presenting an equivalent number of AP or IB credits.

  2. The program that the President did note in his State of the Union address, albeit obliquely, called "Course Redesign" (by NCAT.... and I can't remember what their name is... National Center for Academic Transformation, maybe?) is NOT the answer.

    It is sold as the answer because "today's student" needs to learn at their own pace.

    So instead of having adjuncts or teachers or smaller sections of courses, one teacher teaches a section of 1,500 students that meets mostly online and is MOSTLY taught by textbook publisher software of the MyWhateverLab type.

    Getting rid of teachers might make education cheaper and it might be easier to take a quiz as many times as you need to in order to pass it online, but that does NOT mean you've learned the material better.

    MLP Out.

  3. "Less than half of U.S. college students graduate..."


  4. Another thing: I teach at a lower-tier college where most of my students are woefully unprepared to do college level work. Many have never written an essay; some are barely literate. Their study skills are atrocious or non-existent. They grind out their core requirements bitching and complaining about their low grades, never really understanding the extent of their academic deficiencies.

    When and if they finally get a diploma, all it signifies is that they have the same skills that a high school graduate would have had 30 years ago.

    Do they "need" a college diploma to get a job, or do they need the skills and education that a college degree signifies, whether they have the degree or not?

    Maybe we need to spend less time focusing on shoving as many people as possible toward a four-year degree, and more time thinking about how to get people the basic competencies that they need in order to do well in the marketplace. We disparage Vo-Tech education to the detriment of many students who would find satisfaction and a good living in such jobs. And maybe there should be more options in between a high school diploma and a BA, so students don't accumulate a lifetime of debt replicating the high-school education that should have been available to them for free, in high school.

  5. " "Less than half of U.S. college students graduate..."


    No that's horrible because it's a waste of resources.

    1. Why is it never the lead-in for someone to suggest that too many ill-prepared students are getting ADMITTED to college?

      Oh no...we must never reveal that unwelcome truth...

  6. At my university they focus on retention. This focus is NOT at preparing students to do basic course it is on lowering standards so they can pass with the low level skill they have. The reasoning? They won't stay if they can't pass the basic courses, (never mind they they won't pass anything else either)! Pretty soon a bachelors degree will be so watered down it won't mean anything.

  7. I think we need an article about how basic literacy has declined and more and more students are being admitted to college without the necessary skills. Most of the students in our school who take longer to graduate are doing so for lack of basic skills (I'm at a SLAC). They get sold on the idea of college and $80,000 later, they realize that they simply don't have the skillset to navigate upper-division courses.

  8. I especially growl at the idea that colleges cater to professor's schedules. Since I design the schedule for my department and have to cater to the times that students DEMAND we have courses, I call bullshit from this author. Did Stan Jones even TALK to anyone in higher ed before writing this?

    1. I don't create the schedule for my department, but I suspect our situation is similar. Partly because we have a wide range of faculty with a variety of personal/professional situations teaching our core courses, not to mention a plentiful supply of adjuncts, it's possible to staff a course at many times of the day, night, and week. In fact, we're under pressure from the state legislature to make better use of our buildings at particular days and times, especially Friday. We've made some progress, but the students are quite resistant -- considerably more so, I suspect, than the faculty.

      Or, to put it another way, online classes aren't growing like gangbusters because *faculty* prefer classes that are at least theoretically "in session" 24/7.


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