59% of bachelor’s degree students finish

A four year college degree should not be taken for granted as even many who begin at a four year college do not finish:

The reality is that America has a college-completion crisis. Among traditionally aged bachelor’s degree students, the U.S. Department of Education reports that only 59 percent graduate within six years, nevermind four. For students in two-year institutions, completion rates are even lower. Put those numbers together and a majority of American students who enter college do not complete their degrees in the time allotted, or indeed ever.

The rest of the article raises some worthwhile questions about who is responsible for this percentage and what could be done to improve it. At the least, it should serve as a reminder to two groups:

  1. Those who expect that because everyone knows the value of a college degree in today’s world, potential college students should move heaven and earth to obtain a degree. It is not necessarily an easy process to complete.
  2. Better off students should remember that the path to a four year college degree is not a given. Making it to graduation day often reflects years of expectations, preparation, and resources that not everyone can access.

A need to better understand why more education doesn’t lead to less religiosity among American Christians

A new Pew report looks at the relationship between education and religiosity:

On one hand, among U.S. adults overall, higher levels of education are linked with lower levels of religious commitment by some measures, such as belief in God, how often people pray and how important they say religion is to them. On the other
hand, Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.
Moreover, the majority of American adults (71%) identify as Christians. And among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.
There is a two part process with this data. First, it has to be collected, analyzed, and reported. On the face, it seems to contradict some long-held ideas within sociology and other fields that increasing levels of education would reduce religiosity. Second, however, is perhaps the tougher task of interpretation. Why is this the case among Christians and not other groups? What about the differences between Christian traditions? How exactly is religion linked to education – does the education reinforce religiosity or are they separate spheres for Christians (among other possibilities)? Data is indeed helpful but proper explanation can often take much longer.

A college degree leads to more geographic mobility

Americans with a college degree are more likely to leave where they grew up and end up in metropolitan regions:

Today, people with a college degree are more likely than they used to be to move to metropolitan regions with good jobs and other people like them, and this means both that those regions do better over time and that the return on that education is even greater. Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30, according to Moretti. Only 27 percent of high school graduates do. As booming cities draw in new college-educated workers, employers seeking these workers follow, and cities continue to gain strength like magnets. This improves the prospects of everyone in the region, including those without college degrees. The working-class strongholds that once prospered without college-educated workers, on the other hand, are doing worse and worse, as computers and robots replace the workers whose jobs haven’t been sent overseas, and, as a result, an oversupply of labor brings down wages for everyone still there.

It’s not just that a college degree leads to higher earnings or more opportunities; it is also that people with college degrees tend to cluster in certain locations. Even in a world where technology could theoretically allow workers to be far away from their workplaces, the clustering in desirable cities of employers, cultural scenes, and places to live with a high quality of life is linked to education levels.

Another side effect of this clustering is that cities tend to have diverse and vibrant economies while smaller communities simply can’t access multiple options. Thus, even if a smaller community has a single thriving industry, this may not work well:

Focusing on one type of industry could be a successful strategy; Warsaw, Indiana, a relatively small town in the northern part of the state, is the orthopedic capital of America, with dozens of orthopedic device companies small and large located there and a bustling economy as a result. Elkhart, Indiana is the epicenter of the recreational vehicle industry, and manufacturers and suppliers are located there, creating good jobs when the economy is doing well. Cities and towns may be able to convince a cluster of a certain type of companies to locate there, and reverse their decline. “Every place has to look at its comparative advantage, and find a niche,” Ross DeVol, the chief research officer at the Milken Institute, told me.

Having lived near Elkhart during the financial crisis, such a strategy can look good in boom times but be disastrous in down times.

Looking toward the future, are there any particular industries or sectors that would be willing to spread out geographically in order to build stronger American communities? This might limit their profits or make it difficult to attract certain employees but could it be worthwhile to invest in smaller communities in the long run (either for the communities or also for a competitive advantage)? Even sectors like health care are finding it difficult to maintain facilities in small towns because of the advantages that consolidation and economies of scale offer.

Are we already to the point where people live in rural areas because (1) they are “stuck” there or (2) because they are already well-off and have the resources or option to live there?

A college education as another object of conspicuous consumption?

A law professor argues the price of a college degree is related to seeing it as part of conspicuous consumption:

More than a century ago, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the practice of buying luxury goods in order to display social status. In its purest form, conspicuous consumption involves purchasing expensive goods precisely because they are expensive, which means that the true conspicuous consumer will have what economists call an inverted demand curve.

Normally, when the price of a good rises, demand for it will fall. Demand for a Veblen good, by contrast, goes up as it becomes more expensive. The purpose of buying it is to display wealth, so the fewer people that can afford to buy a good, the more valuable it becomes to conspicuous consumers…

In economic terms, higher education is a positional good: It is valuable to have a college degree because other people don’t have one. It is also to a significant extent a Veblen good: Sending one’s children to college, and most especially a prestigious (meaning expensive) college, is a way of signaling social status via the conspicuous consumption of a luxury good.

All of this helps explain why college tuition has increased three times faster than the cost of living over the past three decades. University administrators have discovered that, to a remarkable degree, the more they charge for what they’re offering, the more people will want to buy it.

This reminds me of the argument Mitchell Stevens makes in Creating a Class. After a prolonged study of college admissions, Stevens suggests prospective college students tend to select the school they will attend primarily based on status (my note: which is often tied to price). The emphasis is not on learning but rather on the economic benefits this can lead to (better jobs, better social networks) as well as the status the college confers to its graduates.

I encountered a bit of this with my graduate education at the University of Notre Dame. While Notre Dame does not have one of the highest ranked sociology programs, people who heard I was at Notre Dame expressed they were impressed since it is viewed as a good school. The implication was that I must be a good student if Notre Dame thought highly of me – a transfer of status from the university to the individual. However, I suspect their claims were based on the undergraduate ranking (usually between #15-20 in US News) and not on the specific of the sociology graduate program.

Gallup to start surveying college graduates to find if their college degree led to “a great life”

Gallup is working on a new initiative to measure a wider range of life outcomes for college graduates:

As the old saying goes, money can’t buy happiness. And yet, in measuring alumni success and satisfaction, colleges – often prodded by those seeking to hold them accountable – typically look at two things: whether their former students are gainfully employed, and whether they’re making a decent salary.

A new project announced today, led by Gallup and debuting at Purdue University, aims to change that. Focusing on a set of factors that are shown to correlate with “a great life,” the survey of 30,000 graduates annually will provide data on how alumni of groups of colleges (public or private institutions in certain states, for instance, or athletic conferences) are faring and how they compare to national averages. The final product will be a benchmark for student success against which any campus can measure its own graduates, if it works with Gallup individually…

The survey’s line of questioning goes beyond job placement and salary, also inquiring about work place and community engagement, personal relationships, physical fitness, sense of purpose and happiness, and economic management and stress…

“No one is going to suggest that colleges and universities are responsible for 100 percent of your great job and great life,” Busteed admitted, “but obviously, if you go to college and you get a degree, the odds are you increase the probability of having a good outcome.”

Given the arguments about the cost of college, I’m not surprised efforts like this are quickly moving forward. And, as the article notes, there are lots of methodological questions in play: what exactly is “a great life”? How many years after college should people be asked these questions? How can the effects of college be separated out from other life experiences (though people’s perceptions about whether college mattered is important as well)?

At the same time, I’m not opposed to trying to get at these life outcomes after college. Colleges often make the argument they improve the lives of their graduates from earning more to training for careers to giving students room to start living to critical thinking to a broader understanding of the world. Is some of the concern about measuring these things that colleges might not be able to live up to lofty claims? For example, given the findings of Academically Adrift from a few years ago, not all college students are benefiting. Once findings start trickling out, it will then be imperative to see what gets counted as “success” for colleges.

Bad logic: stories of successful college dropouts obscure advantages of going to college

The president of the University of Chicago writes that holding up successful college dropouts as models takes away attention from the advantages of a college degree:

Names like Jobs, Gates, Dell, and others lend star power to the myth of the wildly successful college dropout. One recent New York Times homage to the phenomenon compared dropping out to “lighting out for the territories to strike gold,” with one young executive describing it as “almost a badge of honor” among startup entrepreneurs. Like any myth, this story has a kernel of truth: There are exceptional individuals whose hard work, determination, and intelligence make up for the lack of a college degree. If they could do it, one might think, why can’t everybody?

Such a question ignores the outlier status of these exceptional drop-out entrepreneurs and innovators.

Those who are able to achieve such success often rely on a set of skills already developed before they get to college. They know how to educate themselves, get a bank loan, and manage their time and their money. They may benefit from a network of family, friends and acquaintances who open doors and provide a safety net.

But what happens to young people without access to these important resources? For them, skipping college to pursue business success is like investing their savings in lottery tickets in the hopes they will be a multimillion-dollar winner, or failing to pursue an education because they expect to be an NBA superstar. The reality is that the next college dropout will not be LeBron James, James Cameron, or Mark Zuckerberg. He will likely belong to the millions of college drop-outs you don’t hear the press singing about. These are the 34 million Americans over 25 with some college credits but no diploma. Nearly as large as the state of California, this group is 71 percent more likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to default on student loans. Far from being millionaires, they earn 32 percent less than college graduates, on average.

I’ve seen this logic used in arguments about not having to spend lots of money on college or from those who see college as liberal indoctrination. As Zimmer argues, using outliers to build a theory is just not a good idea. These famous cases are held up partly because they are so rare, not because this is necessarily a good path to pursue. This is similar to the logic used in holding up rages to riches stories; while it is true that social mobility, upward and downward, occurs in the United States, a phenomenal change in position over one lifetime is more rare.

I’ve used this very example with my Introduction to Sociology class when talking about why people go to college. I ask them if they are aware of wealthy college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They say yes. I then ask if they dropped out of college, would their parents accept these stories as good rationale? They answer no. I then tell them a little of the Bill Gates story as relayed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Gates attended a pretty good high school that through one student’s parent who worked for a computer company was able to purchase a used mainframe computer. Gates then had a rare opportunity at the time for a high school student to spend hours with the mainframe and learn about it. He was then able to build on this background and later founded Microsoft with Paul Allen. Gladwell uses this as an example of the Matthew effect where those who come from more advantaged backgrounds (or who happened to be the oldest hockey players) tend to get more opportunities later in life.

Thoughts on the fact that 35% of four-year degree students finish college in four years

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.

h/t Instapundit