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

Utah legislator suggests sociology degree may be “degree to nowhere”

A legislator in Utah made some comments recently that sociology, along with several other disciplines, do not provide helpful degrees for some students:

Stephenson, who has a four-year degree and master’s from BYU, said colleges aren’t giving sociology, psychology and philosophy majors the real story.

“These colleges refuse to inform them,” Stephenson said. “They refuse to give them the data.”

Stephenson is clarifying to say he is not calling four-year degrees undesirable. Nonetheless, his message is already being met with opposition from his legislative counterparts.

“Clearly it sends the wrong message,” said Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. “Basically, what we need to be saying is that these are all important and not to be pitting one against the other, because they all provide value.”

Romero pointed to sociology majors, which sometimes turn into lawyers and earn good paychecks.

“What’s most important is getting a liberal education, getting a well-rounded education and learning how to think,” he said.

Even some Republican colleagues are questioning the strength of Stephenson’s message. Tuesday, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, told Stephenson he was overstating the lack of value in a college degree.

Stephenson appears to be finding support for his rationale in a new Harvard University report out Wednesday. It says the education system is failing a lot of students that need to be career-ready, not college-ready.

Stephenson is calling certain four-year degrees “degrees to nowhere” as he pushes for an increase in funding for applied technology colleges.

While Stephenson is pushing for more vocational training, it is interesting that he picks on sociology (along with psychology and philosophy). A few thoughts about this:

1. These degrees do lead to some jobs or career paths. For example, sociology can often feed into social work or work in the criminal justice field. But some of these ties are not as obvious as perhaps business, pre-law, or pre-med.

2. It would be interesting to see the data to which Stephenson refers. Does this data say these majors can’t find work? Does it say that they earn less over a lifetime compared to some other majors? Do these majors have more student loans or debt after college? Does it say they have less meaningful jobs? Just curious.

3.  The skills of knowing how to interact with other cultures and people from different backgrounds seems valuable. See David Brooks’ argument about the difficulty of working with people.

4. The legislator Romero tries to defend these degrees but makes two interesting points of his own:

4a. The idea that these degrees and the skills developed in earning the degree have value even if it is not monetary value is a broader comment about society. If social workers, for example, are important and needed, shouldn’t the profession be better paying and more prestigious? Pay does not necessarily equate with social prestige or value.

4b. Romero then suggests that sociology can be fine if it is paired with a law degree. So the only way sociology is valuable is when paired with a prestigious and higher-earning degree?

5. The way this story is presented, the argument breaks down along party lines: the Republican thinks these degrees are not as worthwhile, the Democrat tries to defend them. Can we simply say that Stephenson thinks these degrees are not worth much because they support or promote values he disagrees with?