The Graduation Gap
Why more college students don't finish what they start

By Jay Mathews

Sunday, June 13, 2004;

About two-thirds of this year's 3 million high school seniors will be starting college soon, an exciting time of unpacking, and buying textbooks, and forgetting that parents and curfews ever existed.

The problem is this: Half of those young collegiates won't graduate.

While we take great pride in the accessibility of higher education in America, we actually don't look so good anymore. About one-third of American adults have bachelor's degrees. That was once an impressive percentage, but several European countries have caught up, and the Japanese and Koreans are not far behind . Our high dropout rate is the reason.

People drop out of college for many reasons: inadequate funds, poor academic preparation, too much partying, distaste for the lecture-paper-exam grind. But few colleges seem to be aggressively intervening to help students overwhelmed by these obstacles and distractions. There is nothing wrong in principle with Americans who choose not to go to college, or who drop out soon after they start, but it would be nice if their decisions stemmed from careful reflection rather than frustration with large institutions that don't care much about them.

The larger the college, the less likely it will have enough staff devoted to helping students stay. State schools are worse than private ones, mostly because they are so much larger. The 10.6 million students attending public colleges and universities are in places more likely to lose track of them than the 2.7 million in private colleges.

Robin Toner had dropped out of college once when she decided to try again at age 21. That was when she was forced to reacquaint herself with the irritations of campuses run like motor vehicle departments. She asked the man at the admissions desk at California State University at Fullerton, "Are you still taking applications?" "Sure," he said, handing her the form. When she came back 15 minutes later to turn it in, another man was at the desk. "Sorry, we're not taking applications anymore," the second man said.

She managed to persuade the new guy to accept her paperwork, but the episode underlines the problem at many big state schools. Universities are worse than airports. Lecture courses are as crowded as 747s. Class assignments are made by computers. People get lost.

What almost always saves the day is an educator who takes an interest in an individual student. For Toner, it was Don Pierstorff, an English professor at Orange Coast College who discovered earlier, through close questioning, that she was not turning in some of her papers because she did not think they were good enough. "Here is the new rule for you," he said. "Perfection is not the perfect paper. Perfection is turning in every paper."

How can we make sure all students find somebody like that? College sports officials are thinking of penalizing schools whose athletes don't graduate. Why stop at quarterbacks and power forwards? We want our political science and hotel management majors to have a shot at a degree, too, even if they are never going to be mentioned on "SportsCenter."

Some state legislatures are considering funding universities using formulas that give more weight to graduation rates than to enrollment numbers. That might force those institutions to spend more on helping struggling students. In fact, the Education Trust reports that state universities that do focus on the problem are doing much better than very similar institutions that don't.

The California State University system is trying to track each student's academic progress. You might think most schools are doing that, but you would be wrong. The computers record the courses taken and the credits needed, but few human eyes scan the files in search of young people who are not moving steadily toward graduation.

The University of Connecticut recently increased the number of paid student advisers from seven to 14, a good start in restoring humanity to the process. Nineteen colleges are supporting the Posse Program -- soon expanding to the District -- which gives full scholarships to 10 to 12 students from the same city who enroll as freshmen together and meet regularly with an adviser so they can help one another over the rough spots.

Universities are spending billions on shiny new cafeterias and dorms and libraries and labs to make themselves competitive in the higher-ed market. More of that money could be spent on making personal connections with students so that later on they will not, like so many Americans, think of college as something that just didn't work for them.

Jay Mathews's e-mail address is mathewsj@washpost.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company