"America's Worst Colleges?"
"America's Worst Colleges?"
Reading this article on "America's Worst Colleges" was a revelation. Until now, it hadn’t really occurred to me the extent to which blog-style journalism was dumbing down article quality, even at highly reputed media outlets like WaPo. So instead of finished products, we get first-draft quality articles like this one.
Fortunately, there is a possible saving grace of blog-style writing. Put together the rough draft article and the reader comments, and you have the makings of an actual finished article. Here’s a summary of what it might look like:
Some colleges have really low graduation rates, between 5-15% - some people might call them ‘America’s worst colleges’. You might think this happens because “Such colleges admit mostly low-income students who lack the preparation to get into well-run colleges. It is hard to teach them. A low graduation rate comes with the territory.”
But watch out for the trap: there are other colleges which have nearly identical demographic characteristics: similar percentages of Black and Hispanic students, similar high school GPAs and SATs, but with much higher graduation rates. So these schools with low graduation rates must be the worst colleges, right?
Wrong -- that’s the real trap: making simplistic conclusions about a complicated situation. What the data really show is that the above demographic characteristics - race, HS GPAs, SAT scores - can be unreliable indicators of college success. (As the original article demonstrates by omission,) there are commonly overlooked factors which may better account for what’s going on.
What are those factors?
- Percentage of residential students
- Percentage of full-time students who are not working full-time
- Percentage of students who are not taking care of families
- Percentage of first-generation college students
- Percentage of students who are financially independent of their parents (i.e., out there making it on their own)
- Quality of student support services
- Admissions yield rates and other measures of student selectivity
Oh and by the way, using graduation rates as the sole indicator of quality is a highly questionable idea. Sometimes a low completion rate indicates greater rigor rather than greater quality (e.g., Ranger school). Also, graduation rate data collection methods are highly flawed and disfavor colleges and universities which serve non-traditional students, as a 2006 AACSU report pointed out. Graduation rates only count those who graduate from the same school within six years, so if you show more persistence by taking longer (or for that matter transfer from one elite school and graduate from another), you don’t get counted.
Still, as the AASCU report notes, “Research has demonstrated that campus and system policy, practice, and culture do affect student persistence and completion, making institutions an important stakeholder in the promotion of student success... [but graduation rates] should not be viewed as the sole indicator of student success or campus performance.”
One study which measured actual-to-expected graduation rate found that “about two-thirds of the variation in institutional degree completion rates was due to differences in beginning student characteristics.” Most of the important factors are beyond the institution’s control if they choose an inclusive admissions policy.
Still, that still leaves plenty of room for institutional improvement, and it raises the question, just how inclusive should colleges be? Does everyone need to go to college?
This reflects the dilemma American society has created for itself: expecting everyone to go to college, and making college almost the sole path to “middle-class earning power” as Tony Carnevale argues, without really knowing how to enable everyone to succeed on that path.
A free society can’t make everyone succeed, so why blame the colleges for the failure of individuals and for the failure of society at large? Do these schools get the lion’s share of resources to help students succeed, or is in fact the opposite the case? Hmm....
So beware those who would put all the blame on the colleges themselves and attempt to justify that blame by promoting ranking systems based on a singular and thus overly simplistic measure.
Now that would be an article worth reading -- but I guess we have to write them ourselves...