Upper limit to genuine college graduates

Presidents, governors, the Lumina Foundation and other higher education agencies continue to call for an increase in the percentage of American high school graduates attending college. College-going rates are being used nationwide as indicators of K-12 success. To some education visionaries, the perfect society would be one where every high school student attended and graduated from a four-year college.

Indeed, we now are hearing of state governing boards and national groups setting short-term goals of 60 or 70 percent college attendance. These goals are unrealistic. They threaten to undermine our public university system and devalue the degree of bonafide college graduates.

Foreign universities provide good lessons.

Hong Kong was the first in Asia to overbuild university capacity. By the late 1990s, this ex-colony of 7 million found it had more university seats than capable high school graduates to fill them. Rather than lower its entrance standards, Hong Kong admitted students from the China mainland where there was a surplus of college-able students.

A decade ago, Taiwan also found itself with too many university seats. Similar to Hong Kong, Taiwan uses high school exit exams to measure academic skills and had no intention of admitting sub-standard students and watering down their academics. Taiwan has been scaling back and merging its universities. Korea likewise expanded its university capacity — and hit a ceiling.

China started from a very low university capacity. When I was at East China Normal University in 1993, only the very top scorers on their high school exit exam got to attend their few colleges. Higher education was free. I watched as they all crowded to the lunch cafeteria with their eating utensils and thermos bottles. The students were all A-plus brilliant — but poor. By the late 1990s, China doubled its university capacity and began charging tuition. By 2004 they doubled again. And then again by 2008. Now with 20 times the university capacity, China’s university growth is leveling off because they are producing enough academic talent to serve their future. And they want to maintain academic quality.

That is a lesson that American education policy-makers are ignoring. Not all of our secondary graduates are college-able. Nor do some very capable students desire to pursue an academic career. There is nothing wrong with desiring to be an auto-mechanic, farmer, electrician or plumber. We desperately need those professionals.

But American boards and education gurus do a great disservice when they set arbitrary goals for college-going, or use college attendance as a metric in nation-to-nation competition. This places public institutions under pressure to raise college admissions, retention and graduation rates by any means possible.

When public high schools were put under pressure to raise graduation rates, they did (in many cases by finding methods to graduate every student with a heartbeat).

The pressure on universities comes not only from unrealistic goals from above, but also from the fact that public universities have become more dependent on tuition dollars as states decrease their support.

Across the nation, more schools are advising students into easy courses the first semesters so that marginal students will persist a few semesters longer and pay more tuition before failing. Front-loading of the general education courses delays the more difficult major-field courses. This then makes it difficult to complete the pre-requisite sequences in their major in the remaining two years. That costs the student a fifth year, but provides more tuition to the college.

Although university teachers are supposed to have academic freedom, it is becoming increasingly common for faculty with higher D/W/F rates to be called in and asked by higher administrators “what are you going to do about this?” The main driver in some public universities is now becoming retention and graduation rates. The losers are students and the value of a public university degree — when a good student walks across stage to receive a degree at graduation, only to be followed by several who did very little work to receive the same degree.