Ben Miller and Phuong Ly’s expose of college dropout factories reminds me of many conversations I’ve had over the years with policy makers and foundation officials about helping more students earn college degrees. They tend to go like this: First, we need a “research strategy” to identify “best practices” that have a statistically significant impact on college graduation. Then we need a “dissemination strategy” to communicate those practices to administrators and practitioners. Colleges will adopt the best practices, and graduation rates will rise.
I think this is mostly wrong.
The article tells the story of Nestor Curiel, a former student at Chicago State University. Here’s what happened:
With its tree-lined campus and gleaming new steel and glass convocation center, Chicago State certainly looked impressive. But within his first month there, Nestor wanted to leave. Advisers in the engineering department seemed clueless about guiding him to the right courses, insisting that if he wanted to take programming he first needed to enroll in a computer class that showed students how to turn on a monitor and operate a mouse. (Nestor required no such training.) The library boasted a robot that retrieved books, but Nestor would have preferred that it simply stay open past eight p.m., since class sometimes ended at nine p.m. or later, leaving him without a useful place to study or do research before going home. Trash littered the classrooms and grounds, and during class many of the students would simply carry on conversations among themselves and ignore the instructors—or even talk back to them. Nestor was appalled. “It was like high school, but I was paying for it,” he says.
Several students he knew dropped out, but Nestor stayed. “I wasn’t going to give them my money and let them kick me out,” he says. For the next two years, Nestor encountered a ceaseless array of impediments to getting through school. When he wanted to get a tutor, his advisers couldn’t offer any advice about who might be available. When he visited the financial aid office to clear up what seemed like a simple clerical error depriving him of a state grant, the office told him—untruthfully, as it turned out—that getting such grant money would disqualify him from getting any scholarship money from the Pullman Foundation.
And so on. Not coincidentally, Chicago State has had many problems throughout the years:
In 2008, Chicago State’s President Elnora Daniel resigned under pressure after the school suffered yet another severe bout of mismanagement. A state audit found that even as the university suffered budget cuts, Daniel and other employees had spent lavishly on meals, alcohol, and first-class airfare. Daniel had brought five relatives and a university administrator with her on a nine-day Caribbean cruise for a “leadership conference.” Lax financial oversight allegedly resulted in the university paying more than a quarter of a million dollars for two photocopiers purchased from a company owned by a university employee.
Meanwhile, students contended with broken elevators, dirty classrooms, and ill-equipped labs. As enrollment declined, so did graduation rates. Of the first-time, full-time freshmen who started in 1996, about 18 percent graduated within six years. The graduation rate dropped to 13 percent in 2008.
Maintaining an up-to-date list of available tutors, calculating financial aid accurately, placing students in the right classes, picking up garbage, and maintaining elevators aren’t “best” practices. They are “minimally competent” practices. Nobody is ever going to publish a research study finding a causal link between $125,000-per-photocopier contracts, Caribbean cruises, and graduation rates.
But I’m quite sure that these things are much more important to helping students graduate than the presence or absence of specific retention programs. They all go to the basic competence and quality of the institution. Well-run universities that have student-focused organizational cultures and are properly accountable to outside regulatory bodies simply don’t behave this way. Well-run universities are also much more successful in helping student earn degrees. It’s unreasonable to think that a university like Chicago State, which enrolls many part-time, low-income, and academically diverse students, will have a 100 percent graduation rate. But based on the research and examples cited in the article, it’s reasonable to expect that CSU could graduate 1 in 2 students, as opposed to 1 in 10.
The article also highlights an important fact about federal graduation-rate measures, which are often criticized because they count transfer students as dropouts. Sometimes students transfer for reasons that have nothing to do with the university. But sometimes, as is was the case with Nestor, students transfer because the university is doing a really terrible job.
Because colleges and universities are unusually well-regarded institutions that serve a noble societal purpose and are run by people with esteemed academic credentials, the public conversation about them tends to discount the possibility of gross incompetence. In reality, universities can be terribly mismanaged just like K-12 schools, fire departments, or huge multinational oil companies. Failure to acknowledge this prevents us from tackling the problems that most need to be solved.