College attainment

Good news in the 2010 data on college attainment. Nationally 31% of 25-34 year olds have a four year degree or more. (Another 8% have a two year degree.) This is significant because, if sustained, it breaks a three decade long plateau in the proportion of adults with a four year degree which has pretty stubbornly stayed around 27%.

The Michigan news is not so good. The proportion of Michigan 25-34 year old with a four year degree is a little more than 27%. (8.6% have a two year degree.) Although there is no good data, the odds are high that our lagging the nation is a combination of fewer of those who grew up here getting a degree and Michigan being a net exporter of young talent.

What continues to be a challenge both here and around the country is the high number of students who start college and don’t earn a degree. Nationally more than 23% of 25-34 have some college but no degree, in Michigan it is almost 28%. Some didn’t go to college to get a degree. And some are still working on a degree. But most are drop outs. We need to make lowering the college drop out rate a priority just as we have with high schools. Getting higher college attainment is critical to both individuals economic well being but also to the well being of our communities.

A recent Education Week article offers some encouragement. It describes research trying to identify what skills are needed to succeed in college. The research assumes that high test scores on the ACT and SAT are not enough and may even not be what is most important. What they are finding is that so called soft skills like conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and openness to new experiences are reliable predictors of college success. And some, including ACT, are taking the next step and working on assessment systems to measure these skills.

The folks at Ford have been working on building these skills in high schools across the country for 20 years. The Ford PAS program is designed to build the kind of non academic skills that students will need to succeed in the 21st Century workplace. Turns out those skills are the same that you need to succeed in college.

We need to get smarter about this and then apply what we learn. The notion that the only measure of whether someone is ready for college is their score on the college entrance exam is almost certainly wrong. We need colleges, policy makers and the business community to work with high schools to develop the teaching and learning that will substantially increase the proportion of students leaving high school ready for college. And we need colleges to take serious the need to develop these skills with their students as well. The evidence seems to be clear that teaching content is not enough.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. While I completely agree that more attention needs to be paid to the college completition agenda, at least at community colleges, completion is not always the objective of every student. It’s hard to convince the student who’s now completed 2 welding classes and gets offered a job as a welder that he or she should stay in school another 18 months to complete a degree when there are bills to pay and families to feed. In cases where the college inhibits completion, then lets fix and remove those barriers so that students who want a degree are given the best opportunity to do so. However, when students make appropriate and rational decisions that are in their own best interest, it’s hard to hold the college accountable. The point is that before we spend a lot of time, resources, and public policy discussions around completion, let’s make sure we know who and what we’re targeting – rather than approaching this from some sort of “one-size fits all” mindset.

  2. The four year bachelor’s degree program conducted on a physical campus with lots of expensive facilities, administrative and permanent faculty overhead – backed up by a disconnected and disenfranchised second tier of adjuncts – is a broken business model. I have yet to hear a cogent explanation as to why four years, why one size fits all, why in one physical location duplicating what other institutions do. I still don’t see a major step away going on from a failed industrial model of education with still a lot of activity centered on bored kids sitting in rows facing a lecturer spewing out facts and stories and then handing out one size fits all assignments and tests. We have the communications technology and decision support software to let people progress at their own pace, while still interacting with peers and mentors wherever they are and whatever they are doing. We have the ability to bring them the finest minds, the most interesting projects connected to their lives and their personalities and the best teacher/mentors from anywhere on the globe. We have the systems to understand each individuals learning style, deficits and strengths and adjust for them. We have the smart AI to support people 24X7 through their cell phones. Why don’t we use it? HIgher education is not using it, nor is secondary education – at least not effectively, as I’m sure you know. Dr Mitra and many others (who can be found at TED conferences shown online) has some interesting thoughts about how this will change. Their views as I’m sure you appreciate are worth considering http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugata_Mitra .

    Before we focus on training up people to complete a 20th century college education – which recent studies have suggested does not seem to be capable in many instances of encouraging people to learn or put in much effort – lets educate, empower and motivate them to become life long 21st century explorer-learners in long term community and give them qualifications along the way. The emerging Maker/Hacker spaces are a great example of this I have been working with. In the absence of a good early family support system (which many people do not have) – the relevance of which David Brooks so eloquently explains in his new book “The Social Animal” – lets provide a community and a new way of organizing education and the economy that can compensate (and they are of course connected and cannot be treated separately). In some ways our high schools and Universities are preparing people for the current economy which is monumentally unjust, inefficient, unsustainable and dysfunctional. Trying to get most people to succeed in such an economy is setting them up for failure. .

    1. I agree we need to figure out ways to use technology to better deliver higher education. And we needs lots of experimentation too on how to organize teaching and learning to help prepare people to do well in a world of constant change. But I don’t agree that today’s higher education is a broken business model or not value added. Having taught a course last fall at UM and working with a group of Ross MBA students sure seems to me that they are getting an education that is highly relevant to their future success. And the students seem to agree. They are coming from all over the planet and a paying high prices to get something they value as well. My guess is we need something that blends technology and what only on campus experiences does best.

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