Lurking behind the gleaming promise of every wide-eyed freshman is a dark fact of US higher education: Half of those who enroll at four-year colleges and universities will never graduate.
That means about 600,000 students each year will not complete their bachelor's degree, concludes a new US Department of Education study. And it asks: "Is there too much emphasis on getting a four-year college degree?"
It is almost a heretical question. A college degree has never been more coveted - or sought after. A record 14.9 million students enrolled this year. More than 96 percent of high school seniors say college is important - and two-thirds expect to earn a bachelor's degree.
It's a significant change from the early 1980s, when just 52 percent of seniors expected to enroll in any college. Now, "College for all" is the 1990s mantra - urged by parents, guidance counselors, and political leaders of all stripes.
Yet something is not quite right with this picture, some contend. The bachelor's degree is being oversold to many high-schoolers who do not truly want the experience or have only a slim chance of attaining a four-year degree, these critics say. As a result, many students end up on campus without a clear sense of what they expect to gain from a college education. And that can affect everything from choosing the right school at the outset to picking a major or setting a career path - or even dropping out, as growing numbers are doing.
"College has become a default decision," says Kenneth Gray, professor of education at Pennsylvania State University at University Park.
"Tons of unprepared high school graduates are shoveled into four-year colleges," he continues. "But they just don't know why they're there."
Just ask Rick Kimminau. He wishes he had had better high school guidance counseling and had taken time after high school to work. Instead, as a high school senior in 1993, he was focused on the bigger paycheck a college degree offered. His prospects seemed good, as he graduated near the top of his small high-school class.
But he found himself ill-prepared for college. So after two months at the University of Kansas, Mr. Kimminau
quit to avoid racking up thousands more in student-loan debt. He then donned steel-toed boots and a hard hat and began polishing aluminum aircraft skins in Wichita.
"I discovered classes at KU were a lot harder" than high school. "It's so tempting," he says. "You're sitting in a college class and you're thinking: 'I could be making $30,000 a year working.' "
It's a choice that would have seemed astonishing just a few generations ago. Before World War II, college was just a dream for most Americans. The GI Bill, which offered war veterans scholarships for education, changed that. And in the past two decades, demand for college graduates has increased with the growth of the service and high-tech economies. Today a bachelor's degree yields a 12 percent return on investment over a lifetime, says the Department of Education report.
Perhaps as significant a factor in boosting the "college for all" view has been a shift in college counseling. In the 1960s, high school counselors viewed themselves as gatekeepers. Criticized for elitism, they changed. One study shows counselors recommending college to 66 percent of high school seniors in 1992, double the rate of a decade earlier.
Higher education has been very accommodating of this shift. Open-admissions policies expanded to roughly three-quarters of all higher-education institutions, with remedial education available at the vast majority. About 40 percent of those chasing a four-year degree are only marginally academically qualified, according to one estimate.
Critics say the trend is a result of a "one-way-to-win" mentality. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich says, "Too many families cling to the mythology that their child can be a success only if he or she has a college degree." And the assumption poorly serves candidates who might benefit from either delaying the experience, taking a few career-related courses, attending a vocational-training school, or learning about the myriad other ways to enter the work force.
Take Robert Pokorney. He had scholarships to the University of Houston - a "full-ride." But he was an entrepreneur at heart. After two years he left to start an ornamental metalworking business.
"I was a National Merit scholar," he says. "But I was majoring in business and I kind of got the impression they teach you how to work for someone else. That was a big reason I left."
"Some people are born knowing what they want," he says. "When I was at the university, I felt like I was wasting my time spending energy on something I might change my mind on next year."
Similarly, Molly Wilson would have been Class of 2000 at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, but she jumped ship to a new life in computers.
"I dropped out of college because I got tired of feeding my money to big business, and they weren't teaching me anything I didn't already know," she says. "So I'm 20 years old, working for Network Associates, and making $70,000 a year. Who needs college?"
Is it dispensable? It depends
Such views about the dispensability of college may be growing. Spurred in part by a booming economy, more than a quarter of new students leave before sophomore year. That troubles many observers, who note a growing gap between those who have a college degree and those who don't. While some young people can make the leap into well-paying jobs without benefit of a college degree, many will find themselves in dead-end occupations that can't support a family.
Worried by the trend, colleges and universities nationwide are unveiling new programs to connect with freshmen and keep them from dropping out or transferring.
At the University of Washington more than 80 percent of freshmen are in "learning communities" - small groups of students, often from the same dorm, move together through classes over a semester or more.
The idea is to downsize the freshman experience to get students intellectually engaged and connected with the school, faculty, and each other.
The hottest new job on campus is "dean of enrollment management," responsible for boosting retention rates. Some schools, like Ohio State University in Columbus, have gone further, hiring consultants who identify students at risk of dropping out.
This appears a bit self-serving to some insiders. "We behave as if we are holier than thou - completely philosophically motivated - but ultimately the economics of the business have to be accounted for," says a higher-education official who requested anonymity. "There's as much complexity in the way we recruit and price for customers as airline pricing. And as it turns out, higher ed is the same kind of industry."
But Vincent Tinto, a professor of education at Syracuse University and author of "Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition," sees things from an institution's perspective. "Should [students] get an opportunity to go to college even though they don't have the requisite skills?" he wonders. "I can't answer that. For some it's a unique opportunity that comes once in a lifetime, and they may blossom; for others, it's an inappropriate choice."
Clinging to students
Others see a darker side. One sure-fire way to hang onto students, at least in the short term, is to give easier A's, most agree. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, questions whether students benefit when institutions retain them by dangling financial aid and easy grades.
"They're trying to make the places friendlier ... but they're actually turning attention away from academic standards," Dr. Botstein told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "They're investing in things that are about comfort and not about learning, and one of the reasons for grade inflation is an institutional desire to make students happy and stay."
Professor Gray agrees. "This is higher education capitalism unrestrained," he says. "Most colleges are just trying to fill seats. They're calling it opportunity, but it reaches a point where they're just taking people's money."
Still, a few dropouts like Kimminau are back on the diploma hunt - trying to make a go of higher education even if it costs them. Tired of buffing aluminum on blisteringly hot summer days, he started this fall as a marketing major at Wichita State University. "I'll probably be $50,000 in debt by the time I get out," he says. "It'll be worth it if I can get a job with air
But others are taking a different approach, even after holding unsatisfactory jobs for a time. Brian Skiles would have been in the Class of 1996 at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. He dropped out his sophomore year after a bout of heavy drinking. After holding a low-end job, he returned for a few computer classes. Now he's out again and has turned his back on college for good.
"I dropped out for the second time and I haven't looked back," he says. "Some of my friends and associates talk about the degree thing, but they're still in school, and I'm making more money than they are. So I'll let them talk all they want."
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Who will finish college? Check their high school curriculum
*High school curriculum, test scores, and class rank are more influential in determining who finishes a bachelor's degree than is socioeconomic status. Of those three factors, the high school curriculum is most strongly linked with bachelor's degree attainment.
*The impact of a high school curriculum of high academic intensity and quality on degree completion is far more pronounced for African-American and Latino students than any other precollege indicator.
*Of all precollege curricula, the highest level of mathematics one studies in secondary school has the strongest continuing influence on bachelor's degree completion. Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra 2 more than doubles the likelihood that a student who enters postsecondary education will complete a bachelor's degree.
Source: US Department of Education, 1999
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society