The New Dropout Crisis? Not so New

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

The New York Times David Leonhardt, one of the few journalists that I read on a daily basis, published an article this morning on the “new dropout crisis.” The crisis, in this case, is that the national college dropout rate has eclipsed the national high school dropout rate. While I am glad to see the focus on an area that I have studied for over two decades, I do take some issue with this comparison. To begin, it is very true: we have done an extraordinarily poor job in higher education to graduate the majority of our students. Half of students who begin at college of any kind this fall will not earn a degree within six years. That includes two-year and four-year students attending public and private institutions. The causes for this are complex, but we can boil it down to several things, including the arguable beginning of this trend with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 as well as the large subsidies to higher education which helped created the massification (a real word in higher education policy studies) of the system. There are other issues, but these are two very big pieces.


I call the comparison of the two dropout rates a false positive because this has been the case for a long, long time. The data used by Leonhardt, created by Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, is seemingly incorrect to me[1]. First, it uses IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data to create the rate, which probably is not the best data source for comparison as it is self-reported by the institution and IPEDS is known to be suspect. Not a bad choice, but perhaps not the best. A superior source may be the US Department of Education’s NPSAS (National Postsecondary Student Aid Study), which I use below. NPSAS is a specially-designed, randomly sampled database from across the country.

Another factor, of course, is the definition of dropout. Dropout means various things, and in higher education we must talk about dropout in the context of stopouts: those students who drop but come back. Leonhardt’s conclusion is correct, of course. Dropouts in higher education is a serious issue and too many students who begin a degree or certificate program will not succeed, typically carrying a financial debt for a piece of parchment they never received. This is serious stuff.

Where the high school dropout rate comes from I am even less sure, because the status dropout rate of 16-to-24-year-olds is only 5.9 percent according to the US Department of Education[2]. So, I don’t trust the numbers from Bellwether to any degree.

What is true is that dropout in higher education has—for much longer than the NYTimes and Bellwether suggest—been a critical problem in our education system. But the reasons for the dropout in postsecondary education is a much different animal than in secondary education. First and foremost, higher education is not a compulsory requirement as is K-12. By law, most youth must go to school until they are at least 16-years of age, and many states have passed laws to increase that age to 17 or 18. In college, students make their own choice to enroll and to dropout. We know the issue is much muddier than this, but people still have choice. Second, there are much different issues associated with persistence in higher education than in persistence in high school. For almost all students, if you go to high school, you will complete high school. The academics rarely get in the way, but the social issues do. People do not typically dropout because they don’t like or can’t do algebra. They dropout because they don’t like school, would rather work, and take really bad advice from people who are ill-equipped to give it to them. People dropout out primary for bad reasons, not academic reasons. I’m a math guy: I can teach algebra to anyone. Anyone! Trigonometry? Um. Less so, which begs the question why we require all students to learn trig anyway (arguably a sidebar conversation for another time). High school, by definition via its graduation requirements, is designed to succeed via minimum levels and expectations. It’s a pretty low bar to graduate from high school, especially in a non-agrarian society.

In higher education, though, there are many factors that impact the ability of students to persist and graduate. First, many students who leave are simply not adequately prepared to be admitted—let alone graduate—from college. Thus, some high school graduates enter higher education do so with very limited academic wherewithal to succeed. It should be no surprise when many of these students stop showing up. If anyone wants to know what the number one indicator of college success is, guess what? It isn’t someone’s race/ethnicity, income, or education legacy. It isn’t where they come from, per se. It isn’t even their intellect or cognitive ability, necessarily (although it can be). Ultimately, the biggest predictor of postsecondary success is the academic rigor of their prior education, as prominently noted by US Department of Education Analyst Clifford Adelman in his “Answers in the Toolbox” transcript study. Cliff, one of the best policy analysts around, passed away only a few weeks ago.

Another looming issue for students is ability to pay. That doesn’t happen in high school. Even with large public and private subsidies, depending on the college one chooses, there is still a high price to pay. Interestingly enough, the pricing for low-income students is better than many people think it is, due primarily to Pell and institutional grants provided to people betow about 150 percent of the poverty level. In most cases, the expected family contribution (EFC) for students falls between $12,000 and $17,000 a year at the four-year level (see below). For low-income students, this amount is actually quite a bit lower, averaging about $3,000 or less per year. Important to note, of course, is that many low-income students who do dropout do so because the unanticipated costs of college that is not covered by grants, such as travel, health care (copays), drugs (not that type!), and even food. The unexpected items push them over the edge and they leave.


SOURCE: US Department of Education, National Postsecondary Education Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). Data collected and analyzed using PowerStats, W. Swail, May 25, 2018. 

One other note in the NYTimes piece. Leonhardt makes the standard point that the returns to a higher education are large. He’s right. But the echo of this statement gets very stale because it creates a false understanding of why there is an ROI gap. But the returns are declining while graduate (and dropout) debt is increasing. In parallel, the cost of an education is also increasing. It should be noted by readers that one of the reasons that there is such a earnings gap between high school graduates and college graduates is that employers aren’t hiring high school students anymore. And they do so because they can hire BA and other graduates for work that requires nothing more than the skillset learned in secondary school. They could hire high school graduates, but they don’t. As I have written extensively about before, employers use the BA as a filter, without any real thought about the skillsets that they are trying to attract. The assumption is simple: if you bothered to go to college and you were able enough to navigate the system and earn a degree, you can probably do something positive for me. There is nothing wrong with that assumption, because it carries water. But this belief has also propelled the value of college degrees—in particular the bachelor’s degree—to heights that are absurd. About 25 percent of our population has a BA degree and that percent will surely increase in the next quarter century. But 25 percent of the jobs in the US do not require a BA degree. Check my stats from the Bureau of Labor (link above). We simply do not need that many people with BAs. Having one is a good thing. But having too many is a societal problem, too. Ask the BAs who can’t find a steady job or can’t get one that has anything to do with their very expensive (always consider the opportunity cost of not working for 4-6 years) degree. There absolutely should be some level of rationing, by degree and program, in the US, so that we do not overproduce certain graduates. But doing so is a third-rail issue. Who is going to make that decision in America? The Death Panel?

As always, I enjoy comments on these pieces and put them out there for interesting dialogue. I also strongly encourage you to sign up for David Leonhardt’s daily opinion pieces. Always great stuff. And sign up for The Swail Letter, too.

Have a great weekend.


[1] “Seemingly,” because I cannot reproduce the data that is used in the chart. Thus, I am not sure which data sources they actually used, but given that I know most of the data sources available, I have my doubts about the legitimacy of these comparisons.


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