Several low statistics about college completion tend to startle my students when I share them in class:
Only 35 percent of students starting a four-year degree program will graduate within four years, and less than 60 percent will graduate within six years. Students who haven’t graduated within six years probably never will. The U.S. college dropout rate is about 40 percent, the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world.
When I’ve shared these figures with my students, they tend to be incredulous: most people they know go to college and complete it. Figures have gone up over the years but only about 30% of American adults have a college degree. For my students, they have never really known a world where they weren’t expected to go to college. While we might hold up figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as model entrepreneurs who were able to drop out of college, I would guess few people would counsel young adults to not go to college.
These figures can be taken in two directions. One option: these statistics are cited in an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education that calls for rethinking “our obsessive focus on college schooling” and moving toward an educational system like Germany that funnels students into different tracks, college being one of them, after high school. Proponents of this plan like to note that this would increase vocational and technical training, providing the skilled workers than a post-industrial economy needs.
On the other hand, one could argue that there needs to be a lot more support for completing college. This doesn’t necessarily just happen once a student arrives on campus though I think there is much colleges could do to foster a more academic atmosphere that is focused on learning and training as opposed to “having an experience” and jumping on the credentialism train (having a college degree simply so you can get certain kinds of jobs). Aspiring to go to college can be very good but it requires a conducive environment and much work before one gets to college. This whole matter glosses over a bunch of other social inequalities that then play out at the college level. Asking colleges to solve all of these problems is very difficult – one, education is not necessarily the magic bullet we as a culture can solve everything and two, college comes at the end of a long chain of previous experiences.
Another argument to be made in favor of college is that it isn’t just about getting a job. While some will argue this is a luxury, college should be a place where students learn to think and encounter the big ideas that make the world go round. For many students, this will be the only time in life where they will have the time to truly engage with the issues they will then face for the rest of their lives. I do teach at a liberal arts school so I’m betraying some bias here but there is plenty to be gained in terms of human flourishing at college as well as being trained in particular fields or disciplines and I don’t think this should just be available to the wealthy or those who have the time. (Granted, this sort of learning doesn’t have to happen in college but there are few other social institutions that provide this in adult life. And self-learning can be a great thing but you will would want to interact with others in meaningful ways about what you have learned.)
Of course, college can be quite expensive and this influences the debate quite a bit.