Not everyone’s ready for a four-year college at the age of 18, says Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound, in a conversation with David Leonhardt in the New York Times. Many “end up in college because we have few maturing alternatives after high school, whether it’s national service, apprenticeships or structured ‘gap year’ experiences.”
Some young people would do better to pursue an associate degree, says Selingo. “Recent studies of wage data of college graduates in Virginia, Tennessee and a few other states show that the wage returns of technical two-year degrees are greater than many bachelor’s degrees in the first year after college.”
Unready students tend to drop out of college, which means they’ve run up debt but have no degree, he says. We need “more constructive detours on the pathway to college for those who are not ready at 18.”
What should federal and state policy makers do to change colleges with low graduation rates? Leonhardt asks.
First, they need to measure graduation rates accurately, Selingo replies. Currently, only first-time students who enroll in the fall are tracked to see if they complete degrees in “150 percent of normal time,” which is six years for those seeking bachelor’s degrees. Transfers aren’t counted. Neither are part-time students.
A national student record database would allow policy makers to track students as they move among colleges. Once we have a better measure, then colleges that do well in actually graduating students should be rewarded, especially for those students who are not expected to complete college. For example, colleges that graduate Pell Grant recipients above the national average or students who are first in their family to go to college should get access to more federal aid for those students.
And all colleges need more skin in the student-loan game. Students are being saddled with higher amounts of debt, and the schools have little responsibility as they encourage more and more families to take on more debt. Right now, the only punishment is that colleges with high default rates are thrown out of the federal program. But that rarely happens. Colleges need to put some of their own dollars at risk if they are asking students and their parents to take on loans above certain amounts.
Students and parents should use tools such as College Reality Check and the Obama administration’s College Scorecard to analyze college costs and graduation rates, Selingo advises. Falling in love with a campus can lead to heartbreak — and debt.