Making Class Society

The evidence on college dropout rates is exhaustively examined in a recent American Enterprise Institute study Diplomas and Dropouts, done by some first-rate researchers (Rick Hess and Kevin Carey, among others). The study shows what veteran college professors like myself have long known, namely that students who come to college well qualified have a very high probability of graduating –the graduation rate at top Ivy League schools is well over 90 percent, while at schools with open admissions that take any high school graduate who can write a check, it is not uncommon for graduation rates to be well below 25 percent.

Two pillars of the Higher Education Establishment, William Bowen and Michael McPherson (former presidents of Princeton University and Macalester College, respectively) have teamed up with Matthew Chingos in their new book Crossing the Finishing Line to apparently argue, according to news accounts (I have not read the book yet) that a major problem is “under-matching”: talented students with lower incomes that fail to go to the best school available, choosing instead to go to schools with low graduation rates and mediocre quality instead of higher quality institutions with low dropout rates.

Why Are Graduation Rates So Low?, Richard Vedder

I am never quite sure what to make of these sorts of articles. It sounds like yet another lament in the “some kids are just not meant for college” vein. Maybe, maybe not. The key term is the phrase “well-qualified.” Professors always say this sort of thing: “If we only had higher standards, our students would do well.” Basically, if our students were educated we wouldn’t have to educate them.

This is especially true in subjects like math and writing. Professors want their students to have “the basics” before they get to college so that they– the professors– can get on to more interesting subjects. Hidden in all of this, of course, are the mechanisms for maintaining the class hierarchy. Is it surprising that the best-funded schools have the best graduation rates?

I feel the same way about this term “under-matching.” It could be yet another euphemism, or it could be an academic attempt– perhaps well meaning– to talk about class. It seems pretty obvious that if you gave schools more money and resources they could increase drop-out rates. Well, it would if you could stop the administrators from spending it on sports and landscaping.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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