In his recent speech at the University of Texas in Austin, President Obama expressed deep unhappiness that the United States is no longer the country with the highest percentage of college graduates in the 25 to 34 age bracket. By 2020 he wants us to regain the top position we enjoyed ten years ago before South Korea, Canada, and Russia forged ahead of us. According to the latest report of the College Board, the United States is now 12th among the 36 developed nations whose college graduation rates the Board tabulated. Should the President have been unhappy? Only if he believes that our lower rate of college graduation reflects a lower rate of genuine educational achievement. If President Obama simply wants bragging rights, the United States can become first very quickly. All that is needed is to reduce graduation requirements or to increase grading inflation in college courses. (Or to give a college degree to every baby born in the United States along with a birth certificate.) The issue is what students with a college degree should know, not whether they have a piece of paper in exchange for all the time and money spent on a campus. It is troubling that only 40 per cent of Americans 25 to 44 have college degrees. It is even more troubling that of the 70 per cent of our high school graduates who enroll in college, only 57 per cent graduate within six years. One rather remote possibility – given studies that show how little American college graduates know – is that American colleges are maintaining high standards and that these high standards necessarily produce higher dropout rates and lower rates of college completion than President Obama would like. Unfortunately high standards do not appear to be the explanation.
Here is how one reader of the Wall Street Journal reacted to an article reporting the President’s call for more American college graduates:
I have one more year to go in a chemistry PhD and see people around me who do not have an understanding of basic chemistry… how did they get around me?
Why were they not screened out of the educational system? They are going to do huge amounts of damage if they are hired into the workforce as a [sic] chemist!
While a multitude of possible explanations exist for a high college dropout rate – family problems, illness, financial difficulties, alcohol abuse – one obvious possibility is that some youngsters graduate from high school without having learned enough in primary and secondary schools to do college-level work. They leave college without graduating because they realize they are not learning anything much; they are bored. Underlying their boredom is lack of the preparation they should have received in primary school and high school. Compatible with this interpretation are two facts: the dropout rate is very low in selective colleges despite their enormous tuitions; persistence to graduation decreases with the selectivity of the college.
Well, why aren’t American high school graduates better prepared for college? Weren’t they interested in attending college? They certainly were; they say so in polls of primary and secondary school students, and 70 per cent of high school graduates actually enroll in a college within two years of graduating from high school. But the emphasis of American society is on access to college, not on preparation for college. An unintended consequence of making access to college an entitlement readily available to all high school graduates is that serious study in the lower grades has become optional even for those intending to apply for college admission. Without an incentive to study diligently, many students are disengaged in high school and, as a result, underprepared for higher education. Some freshmen arrive at college thinking that having fun is the main reason they are at college and that the pursuit of knowledge should be available for when they have nothing better to do. In short, most of the responsibility for the relatively low rate of college graduation compared with enrollment is a result of misleading students and their parents into thinking that merely attending college will lead to well-paid and interesting jobs without pointing out that mere attendance is not enough. Students need to learn something at college.
Making Financial Aid an Incentive, Not an Entitlement
That is not the only perverse incentive now in place. Financial aid policies have been established that imply entitlement to higher education. The U. S. Department of Education gives billions of dollars in Pell grants — more than six million youngsters received Pell grants in 2008-2009 – to financially needy enrolled students, regardless of their academic performance. Since grants are usually not able to cover fully college tuition and expenses, the Department of Education also provides federally subsidized loans, like grants without academic requirements. Thus, student grants and loans do not utilize the leverage that they could have if they were structured as rewards for good academic performance in pre-college schools and continuing good academic performance in college. The empirical research of Harvard psychology professor B. F. Skinner a half century ago demonstrated that pigeons respond to incentives. Students are obviously more complex animals than pigeons. Nevertheless, students may be as responsive to properly targeted incentives and disincentives as pigeons are.
As one example of the failure to utilize incentives to promote studiousness at the college level, consider that according to tests of the entering freshmen at American colleges, about a third require assignment to remedial courses to overcome their deficiencies in reading, writing, or mathematics, sometimes in more than one subject. (A higher proportion of students at two-year colleges need remediation in these fields and a lower proportion in four-year colleges.) In many colleges students receive no college credit for taking remedial courses and, if they do not pass, are required to take the remedial courses again. Apparently, however, the expensive remediation efforts of colleges to enable initially underprepared students overcome their handicaps are not very successful. Data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics suggest that college remediation is insufficient for the task, judging by the number of students who require remediation and, after getting it, do not complete their college programs. The more remedial courses students need to take at college, the less likely they are to complete college and obtain a degree. Thus, among 1992 twelfth graders who enrolled in postsecondary education and were followed for ten years, 57 percent of students who needed no remedial courses at college obtained at least a college degree within eight years of high school graduation whereas only 19 percent of students who had to enroll in three or four remedial courses obtained a college degree within eight years. Students required to take remedial courses in reading were most likely to drop out of college, not a surprising finding in view of the need to understand reading assignments in most college courses.
The crucial question is why remediation does not work. My hypothesis is that there are inadequate incentives for students who arrive without sufficient preparation to take seriously that that have deficiencies requiring remediation. Without incentives to put in the enormously difficult task of learning in a course or two how to read and write effectively, a task they should have learned gradually over many years, they simply go through the motions. The colleges go through the motions also. In egregious cases they make students repeat remedial courses once or twice. But what if students are so underprepared that they need five or six repetitions of remedial course work to show substantial results? No college would dare to require this, and no underprepared student would stand for it.
Money – A Real Incentive
My suggestion is better incentives for students, incentives that begin in primary and secondary schools and continue throughout college. The best incentive I can think of is student financial aid. It should continue to be targeted to students from low-income families who cannot help them financially to pay for college but good academic performance should also be required for federally guaranteed loans, although not for Pell grants. Let me explain the reasoning behind making this distinction between grant student aid and loan student aid. It is true that, logically, grants without academic requirements violate the principle that higher education should not be an entitlement, only an opportunity, just as much as such loans do. On a strictly logical level, perhaps they do. However, for pragmatic reasons a stronger case can be made for continuing student grants without academic prerequisites than student loans. Grants do not present the same dangers either to students or to the economy as do loans; they do not burden students with debts that they may not be able to repay and they do not burden the economy with complex financial instruments that can produce a credit crisis. Moreover, student grants that ignore academic merit are appealing as an expression of society’s interest in making higher education available even to students who have not done well in high school. Giving Pell Grants is a societal bet that mediocre students can do better scholastically in the future, not that mediocrity is valuable in itself. Maybe they are late bloomers. Of course, mediocre students are only part of the population of Pell grant recipients. Scholastically excellent students from low-income families also receive Pell grants; they are exactly the kinds of people Congress had in mind when authorizing financial aid to students.
The remediation problem arises when students who are needy economically and want to go to college are academically subpar. What the Department of Education now does is simply give them loans as well as grants. What the Department of Education ought to do is to accompany the grants for such students with (1) a warning that in the light of their records, success in college is problematical and (2) an offer to provide programs to improve their chances of doing well at the college they wish to attend. They are free to reject this offer of what is in fact remediation, although it should not be called that, and no doubt many will reject such an offer. The symbolic point of the offer is to call attention to the fact that a grant does not ignore lack of preparedness; it offers a second chance to succeed academically. Getting the grant should not be grounds for complacency. Congress would have to appropriate funds to the Department of Education for establishing these remedial programs for underprepared grant students on more than three thousand college campuses. Given the unfortunate facts (1) that the United States and indeed the world is currently in a recession and (2) President Obama is urging a
stimulus for the economy, such remedial programs might be as useful an investment as infrastructure repair.
Why should the Department of Education establish remedial programs for grant recipients with academic deficiencies when colleges already have remedial programs aimed at all of their students with academic deficiencies, programs that seem to work poorly? For several reasons. First, giving grants to academically underprepared students to attend college and not helping them survive academically is callous; it is programming some Pell grant recipients for failure and dropping out before completing college, which certainly is not what Congress intended in establishing education grants for needy students. Second, a voluntary program has a self-selected clientele. Unlike college-mandated remedial programs, these programs would be designed for students whose previous academic records do not justify federal education loans. They are on warning that getting a Pell grant does not mean that they are fully prepared to succeed. Students who sincerely accept the offer of help are much more likely to succeed. Third, the financial burden of remediation is beyond the resources of many colleges. As a result, their efforts to repair deficiencies of student preparation are genuflections toward remediation but not demonstrably effective. Setting up separate programs for federal grant recipients with academic deficiencies would relieve colleges of part of their immediate remedial burdens and help them financially to deal with their other students with remediation problems more effectively. Finally, the emphasis of these federally supported programs, tied as they would be to grants to needy students, is success in college, not merely the repair of past deficiencies. Although the money will come from the Department of Education, the program itself will be designed individually at each college under contract with the Department, thus providing an opportunity for comparing programs that work better with programs that are not as effective.
Getting the Details Right
What about underprepared students who receive need-based grants to attend college but refuse the offer to participate in such special programs? Denial of deficiencies is common. As an incentive, the Department of Education holds a trump card. Grants for needy students are usually not sufficient to finance college without additional sources of funds. They also need loans, and the Department offers subsidized loans. Federal loans can be allocated quite differently from grants. A condition for receiving these loans might be to participate in programs that address academic deficiencies or to show by improved grades that those deficiencies have been addressed. Students who cannot receive loans but who do receive grants surely receive the message that they have to do better academically to receive federally guaranteed loans. This line of reasoning suggests that grants can ignore academic merit without necessarily undermining the incentives for stronger student performance.
My hypothesis is that such changes in the way Department of Education grants and loans are allocated will be effective incentives for studious behavior at all levels of the American educational system. Even primary school students? Yes, even primary school students. Unlike pigeons and mice, human beings, even young human beings anticipate the remote future and modify their behavior accordingly. If students wish to attend college and know that studious behavior is necessary to make this feasible, many of them will study more diligently. How many? That is an empirical question that will have to be investigated. But children are not free spirits growing up in the woods, nurtured only by wild animals. Most have parents who want them to take advantage of the opportunities that college education can make possible for a better life. How else can the overwhelming response of low-income parents in Washington, D.C. to the lottery process for charter schools be explained?
My hope is that properly targeted incentives can improve not only remediation programs for underprepared college students but also can reduce the number of underprepared college students enrolled in American colleges and universities. Impossible dream?
Jackson Toby is professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers
University and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Student Loans Should Be Based on Student Performance, was published by Praeger Publishers.