When College Is a Waste of Time and Money

When College Is a Waste of Time and Money
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This photo taken March 12, 2014, shows developmental reading professor Naesea Price teaching a lesson on sentence and paragraph structure in a remedial English course at Baltimore City Community College in Baltimore. Only about a quarter of students nationally who take developmental -- or remedial -- classes ever graduate. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

RCEd Commentary

May 1st is college decision day, a day when the press and academic establishment ritually report how selective the nation’s elite colleges have become.

The miniscule undergraduate admission rates at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and the rest have become something of a national joke. But while we often focus on the elites, only a small fraction of students actually attend this type of hyperselective institution, and those enrolling in less selective institutions face an altogether different dilemma: what will happen after enrollment? Roughly half of students who enroll in college fail to complete, and the resulting waste drains public resources and can seriously harm students’ lives.

Under open access policies, students can access financial aid irrespective of prior academic achievement, and colleges and universities enroll many students who are unlikely to complete their degree programs. Sure, everyone who goes to college will face challenges; earning a bachelor’s degree is not supposed to be easy. But for students who haven’t demonstrated college readiness by earning good grades or good scores on college entrance exams, the statistics are bleak.

As you can see in the figure below, as enrollment has increased to nearly 70 percent in recent years, college completion rates and, relatedly, college readiness indicators are stuck below 40 percent of the adult population. Millions of students are enrolling in college despite not being prepared for the academic rigor of higher education. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli calls this the “readiness gap,” and it is persistent. Under open access, colleges admit these academically underprepared students, but many end up in a kind of worst case scenario: with debt from college, but without a college degree.

(Remediation is supposed to solve the readiness problem, but it is usually insufficient, and it is costing us a fortune.)

Whether a student is academically prepared for college isn’t a complete mystery. Numerous studies have found that high school GPA and college entrance exam scores are strong predictors of undergraduate success. In a recent analysis, researchers at ACT, Inc. estimated a better than 50 percent likelihood of six-year undergraduate completion for a student with a high school GPA of 3.5 and a composite ACT score of 25. But for a student with a GPA of 2.5 and an ACT score of 20, the researchers predicted a less than 25 percent likelihood of on-time completion.

Of course some students will beat the odds, but as long as two-thirds of high school graduates are academically unprepared for college, low college completion rates are likely to endure.

Consistently poor college completion rates for academically unprepared students have prompted calls to raise admission requirements and limit access to financial aid. In their book “Community Colleges and the Access Effect,” two community college professors argue that open access policies are leading to declining academic rigor and, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, they advocate “demanding more of students before granting them access to financial aid.” Likewise, Mr. Petrilli calls on higher education institutions to “stop admitting students who are far from ready to succeed in college.”

Although the professors and Mr. Petrilli raise valid concerns about threats to academic standards and the dangers of the readiness gap, tightening access to admission and financial aid in this way would necessarily limit opportunities for many disadvantaged students who are capable of turning their academic careers around. Since students have strong individual incentives not to waste their own time and money, restricting access is probably not the best mechanism to stimulate better completion rates.

Rather than closing access, we must ensure that students are getting quality signals of their academic readiness. The readiness gap is evidence not just of suboptimal admissions policies, but of students making decisions with bad information. No one wants to go to college, drop out, and end up struggling to repay debts without a degree. Students have every incentive to avoid this outcome regardless of admissions and financial aid policies, and with better information they can make better decisions about their own enrollment and completion strategies.

To help students understand what lies ahead, federal legislation could mandate that college acceptance letters include average completion rates for the institution side-by-side with the completion rate for students with similar academic outcomes to those of the applicant. This would send clear signals to prospective students about both the institution’s quality and the student’s potential challenges, prompting more informed decisions.

The ultimate goal must be increasing completion through greater readiness, meaning that signals must come early enough for students to make the changes that will enable success. Middle schools and high schools can continue encouraging a can-do attitude towards academics while giving students strong quantitative signals of their readiness along the way. Getting students’ families clued in to the challenges they are likely to face in college may also stimulate political pressure to create more alternative pathways for students who need options other than pursuit of the bachelor’s degree.

America’s astronomical student loan debt makes headlines regularly, but most of this debt is held by students who hold degrees and have the means to pay the debt back. Much less well-known are the many borrowers who haven’t completed their credential. Even under income-based repayment and eventual forgiveness, these borrowers can be saddled with debt for decades, diminishing take home pay, marring credit, and otherwise restricting their options. Arming prospective college students with better information about the likelihood of success can help families and policymakers better allocate resources while safeguarding open access to higher education.

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