In The New York Times this week, David Leonhardt laid part of the blame for our current economic woes at the feet of public universities. His reason? The high dropout rates at these "failure factories" increases economic inequality and damages economic growth. The high dropout rate, he said, is due to "under-matching": many low-income students "choose not to attend the best college they can get into." Leonhardt explained:
In effect, well-off students--many of whom will graduate no matter where they go--attend the colleges that do the best job of producing graduates. These are the places where many students live on campus (which raises graduation rates) and graduation is the norm. Meanwhile, lower-income students--even when they are better qualified--often go to colleges that excel in producing dropouts.
The problem isn't pre-college education, Leonhardt argued, but better financial aid and a change in culture: "failure has become acceptable. Students see no need to graduate in four years." Plus, we need to correct incentives: currently, "freshmen are cheaper than upperclassmen," because large lecture classes are cheaper than seminars. "A college that allows many of its underclassmen to drop out may be helping its bottom line."
These are some hefty claims, and the superstars of business blogging have weighed in on the article, challenging Leonhardt's conclusuions:
- Pre-College Education Not the Problem? Really? "I have to disagree with Mr. Leonhardt," wrote Ryan Avent at the Economist's Free Exchange blog. "America has a serious and growing problem in its primary and secondary education systems, and lacklustre college graduation rates are a symptom of that problem." The bottom line: "Fix the former and the latter will largely take care of itself."
- What's So Good About Graduating from College? Asked Joe Weisenthal. Colleges and society may already be saturated with four-year students, while "just as graduating from high school doesn't automatically make you prepared for college, graduating from college doesn't automatically make you ready for the real world."
- What's So Good About Joe Weisenthal? Reuters superblogger Felix Salmon didn't cotton to Weisenthal's arguments. The problem isn't, Salmon submitted, that there are too many people attending college, but that "poor kids [are] ... essentially give their rightful place at the better schools to richer kids, who are much more likely to graduate in the first place." No, he said, a degree doesn't guarantee real-world success, "but it makes you much more employable, and it does wonders for your lifetime earnings," and, by extension, the economy. In the current situation, when firms won't hire qualified college dropouts, everyone loses.
- That He Admits When He's Wrong "Felix Salmon calls us out," Weisenthal admitted. "Yes, at the margins, getting the best fit for each student would be a fine thing." But he's not giving up on his objections to Leonhardt: "this would be a marginal gain, nothing nearly so big that Leonhardt could claim state schools are a major contributor to the bad economy."