A Matter of Degree

Improving the odds for the nonaffluent who want to finish college

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

After high school, it's tougher for young people to continue their education than it has been for a long time. Parents losing jobs and threatened with home foreclosure are taking children out of college, or sending them to the school that's most affordable rather than the one that's best.

Tuition far outstrips the wages students can earn to pay college expenses themselves; that situation isn't helped by the fact that students are often paid less for their work than people the same age who aren't students.

The current hard times also expose the philosophical ambivalence pragmatic American society harbors about increasing the number of people with college degrees as President Obama has suggested. Obama wants 5 million more with bachelors' degrees or community college certificates within the next 10 years. Though the nation has traditionally endorsed such goals, they have their detractors.

On September 8, Obama gave an opening-day-of-school speech to the nation's children. "No matter what you want to do with your life—I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it," said the Professor-in-Chief. "You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

"And this isn't just important for your own life and your own future.?What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country.?What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future."?

But John Carney, editor of "Clusterstock" for the online magazine The Business Insider, had his own idea of what the president should have said, and published it the very same day:

"Those of you with average intelligence will find that high school is about as far as your academic talents will take you. ... this kind of education—the standard college education—is really only suitable for somewhere around 15 percent of the population. Unfortunately, we now send a much higher proportion of our students to college, which amounts to a terrific economic waste.

"Those of you who aren't temperamentally or intellectually suited to college should not despair. You are smart enough to engage in any of hundreds of occupations. You can acquire more knowledge if it is presented in a format commensurate with your intellectual skills. But a genuine college education in the arts and sciences begins where your skills leave off.

"So don't let us down—don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. Choose the type of education and the amount of education that is right for you."

Obama, however, knows that young people aren't qualified to decide how little intelligence they have. Many get to college and discover interests and abilities they didn't know they had until their experience in a college environment showed them. The trouble is that staying in college can be harder than getting there. That's a problem that will have to be grappled with if Obama's goal is to become a reality.

*

U.S. Department of Education figures show that only 40 percent of students at four-year colleges receive degrees within six years, and only 20 percent of students at two-year colleges finish within three years. Between May 7 and June 24, 2009 the Public Agenda research group did a survey, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to help answer the question of why dropout rates are so high.

The survey, done in English and Spanish on land line and cell phones, drew in 614 young adults from across the country as respondents. All had some post-secondary education through private, public or online institutions. Some had degrees from four-year schools, some from two-year schools. Others had started either at four-year or two-year schools and not received their degrees.

Of most interest are the insights provided by those who did not finish. The answer to question after question shows that lack of money, not lack of interest, was the most important factor keeping students from finishing their programs—either lack of money itself or lack of scheduling flexibility to allow them to work and earn it.

The profile that emerges from the survey is not the old-fashioned cartoon of the Whiffenpoof-singing, financially carefree and parent-dependent student; rather, it's a picture of a young person with genuine, often pressing anxieties and responsibilities. Twenty-three percent of all respondents, for example, had children, and more than a quarter of community college students worked over 35 hours a week, while 45 percent of those attending four-year schools worked more than 20 hours a week. The young people surveyed showed no lack of willingness to work; in fact, those who dropped out of college were more apt to cite the difficulty of juggling classes and work hours (54 percent) than the costs of tuition (31 percent). Only about one out of 10 said that classes were too difficult, or that they just didn't like sitting in class.

With college costs up 400 percent over the last 25 years and median family income up less than 150 percent, it's no wonder that many students just can't make the math work out so as to stay in school. The correlation between having money and obtaining a degree is much higher than the cultural myths of self-reliance would lead us to believe. People who finish their degrees usually have families chipping in; more than six of every 10 of those who completed their programs had parents or other relatives helping pay the bills. But nearly six out of 10 of those who didn't had no help from their families, and nearly 7 out of 10 of them didn't have scholarships or financial aid.

Sixty-nine percent of those who didn't finish their programs borrowed to go to school, as opposed to 51 of those who did. That means that those who didn't finish were more apt to find themselves in debt after leaving school than those who finished.

Students who didn't finish their programs were also more likely than those who did to have chosen their school based on its proximity to their homes or places of work; because its class schedule fit with their own schedule, meaning in most cases their work schedule; and because of its affordability rather than because of its reputation or because it offered the subjects they were most interested in.

*

Though the numbers in the survey might seem to support Carney's theory that many people just don't belong in college, the statements made by the young people who responded don't. True, 43 percent (16 percent agreeing strongly, 27 agreeing somewhat) said they had to take courses they didn't see as useful. But 77 percent said ("strongly") that they would "still make the decision to go to school because what you learn there is so important." Eighty-nine percent of those who dropped out said they have either given "some thought" (24 percent) or "a lot of thought" (65 percent) to going back.

The survey asked people who didn't finish their programs what was needed to help others stay in school and win their degrees. Of course, money was important; 81 percent said part-time students more ought to get more financial aid. But nearly as many—78 percent—said more evening and weekend classes were needed to accommodate work schedules. Health care coverage and day care were also on the wish list.

Carney might say that the fact that 40 percent of young Americans entering college don't finish their degree work just means that that percentage, or a large fraction of it, shouldn't have gone to college in the first place—that, as he wrote, there is too much social pressure on people to go to college.

Yet that's not what the responses of students participating in this study seem to show.

For example, when they were asked if college "just didn't seem to be worth the money I was paying," 62 percent of those not completing degrees said that that was not a reason for noncompletion, while 54 percent listed having to go to work and make money as the major reason, and another 17 percent listed it as a minor reason. Seventy-five percent listed as either a major (56 percent) or minor (19 percent) reason for not going back that they "really need to work full-time, and don't think [they] could work and go to school at the same time."

And 97 percent of those who had children and dropped out of their programs said they would encourage their children to go to college. "Given their aspirations and their clear message that some distinctly practical and attainable changes could genuinely enhance their prospects, the ball is now in our court," the researchers concluded. "As a society, are we willing to act on what they have to say?"

A sampling of graduation rates at schools in the region: Mt. Holyoke, 82 percent; Amherst, 95; Smith, 88; Hampshire, 65; UMass, 69; Springfield, 67.3; American International, 49.7; Western New England, 63; Bay Path, 45.9; Keene State, 57.2; Marlboro, 58.8; Williams, 95. Source: The Education Trust.

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