Who’s to blame for college dropouts?

Guest-blogging for Jay Greene, Greg Forster asks: Who’s to Blame for College Dropouts?

About Joanne


  1. We usually hear these things from parents.

    One teacher informed a parent that her child wasn’t turning in homework and the parent went off on a rant about how the teacher just admitted with documented proof that he’s a failure at working with unmotivated children.

    One teacher informed a parent that her child was interrupting instruction and quiet work periods by constantly talking. The parent went off on a rant about how the teacher was obviously failing to teach to her child’s strengths which were clearly centered around a gifted verbal ability. Her abilities should be nurtured, not suppressed!

    It’s really easy to be a failure as a teacher–until you learn that every parent’s child is perfect in multiple ways, a joy to have in class, and a glorious reflection of the parents’ remarkably good qualities.

  2. Option A: change college so that all can graduate.
    Option B: change students by hovering over them and “fixing” them in various ways so that all can graduate.
    Option C: don’t change college; don’t change students. Create new post-secondary learning opportunities (many already exist) where students can use their existing strengths to graduate.

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    It’s really easy to be a failure as a teacher–until you learn that every parent’s child is perfect in multiple ways, a joy to have in class, and a glorious reflection of the parents’ remarkably good qualities.

    I get the point you are making and appreciate the hyperbole.

    But please do keep in mind that the parents who *AREN’T* like this take up much less of your time than the ones who are 🙂 You might have kids with reasonable parents, but those interactions may well fade into the background.

  4. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    EVERYONE is a failure at working with unmotivated children.

    Horses. Water. Blah blah, woof woof, as Max the X5 would say.

    That’s not to say that some teachers don’t excel at crushing what motivation children do have, nor is it to say that the world wouldn’t be better off if such teachers were to find another line of work.


    We’ve known for years what leads to successful degree completion and yet we’ve allowed the weakening of academic content in our schools.

    It’s time to get the junk out of our schools!

    Of all pre-college curricula, the highest level of mathematics one studies in secondary school has the strongest continuing influence on bachelor’s degree completion. Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra 2 (for example, trigonometry or pre-calculus) more than doubles the odds that a student who enters postsecondary education will complete a bachelor’s degree.

    But Common Core is not the answer – CCSSI Math Standards ARE TOO WEAK!

  6. Concerned– but is the Math relationship correlative or causative?

    Maybe the sort of kids who have the drive and intelligence to succeed in college are also more likely to take higher level math, and the kids who don’t care about or can’t do the work tend to avoid math…….

    I wonder if this ‘predictor’ will change now that a lot of schools have started a ‘Pre-cal for everyone!’ approach? Because when we push kids into math classes they can’t handle to ‘help with college’ it seems like one of two things happen-

    Either the kids keep falling even further behind their classmates because what they REALLY need is remediation, OR the whole class gets dumbed down into something LESS than ‘precal’ because everyone has to pass. And because, honestly, failing 2/3 of the class on every test takes a huge toll on a teacher, too.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    We’ve been missing Deirdre in the comments lately, and we are most pleased to see her extraordinary clarity return, even if we don’t always agree with her!

    (And no, I’m not a collective online presence, just pretentious.)

  8. tim-10-ber says:

    Let’s see…parents, teachers and students not holding each other accountable…not tracking students, demanding now that all students do post secondary work, weak curriculum…the list goes on…oh yeah, the administration, the money being thrown at education but not reaching the classroom only causing yet another failing fad to be introduced, social promotion, not teaching kids reading to comprehend and basic math by no later than third grade, low standards, lower cut scores, coaches, the list goes on…aren’t we, in so many ways, all responsible for the success or lack there of our ourselves and our kids?

    I use to hope I could get my kids out of government schools before the curriculum hit rock bottom (did that by sending them to quality private schools). Now I hope I can get my younger one out of college before the government K-12 mentality completely invades higher ed. Thankfully no 4-year college in Tennessee can offer remedial classes beginning this fall!! Hooray!! That will start elevating the admission requirements!! Long over due!!

  9. I’m with Deidre on this one; I think the precalc issue is probably the same correlation issue as 8th-grade algebra. At the time it was reported that kids who took 8th-grade algebra did so much better in x and y, 8th-grade algebra was only offered at honors level and only the top kids took it. Naturally, they did better; the algebra was a proxy variable for identification of the best students. The same argument can be made for precalc, since it has been true for a long time that only the top kids continued beyond algebra II, even among the college-prep kids. That was even true when I was in HS in the early 60s. The same goes for debate, Latin (a neighboring MS added Latin when that “causation” was reported!), music and foreign languages. Since most or all of the kids who took those courses were the most academically advanced and motivated, those kids did well; not because they took that course but because they were different in ability and motivation from those not taking the course.

    Given what has happened to 8th-grade algebra, I’d hate to see that mistake made at the precalc level. My current state of residence has made that error in science; all students are now required to take both chem and physics. Most schools in the state are small, many very small, and those will be hurt badly. The classes will be so watered down that they won’t be sufficient for anyone needing them for real college work. The bigger schools will simply offer a “lite” version as well as the real thing.

  10. I should have said that this year’s entering freshmen must take chem and physics in addition to the biology that was already required.

    Major congrats to Tennessee; may many states follow suit.

  11. Students applying for first year admission to UT Knoxville, beginning with the Summer 2013 term, must complete the following 17 core academic units required for admission.

    4 units of English;
    2 units of algebra;
    1 unit of geometry, trigonometry, advanced math, or calculus;
    1 unit of advanced algebra and trigonometry, statistics, discrete mathematics with statistics and probability, pre-calculus, calculus, capstone, senior math or quantitative decision making;
    3 units of natural science. Students must complete Biology I, Chemistry or Physics, and a third lab science;
    1 unit of American history;
    1 unit of European history, world history, or world geography;
    1 unit of additional social science (e.g., government/economics);
    2 units of a single foreign language; and
    1 unit of visual or performing arts.

    It’ll be hard to qualify for admission to UT Knoxville without chemistry or physics offered to all in high school. I agree that requiring all students to take algebra in 8th grade, foreign languages, etc., in the belief that those courses make successful students, is a case of wishful thinking. Successful students take those courses because they’re part of the college track. Requiring all students to take college track courses does not transform them into scholars.

    On the other hand, I know of rural schools which only offer certain lab sciences every other year. Courses may appear in the course of study, but never in classrooms. There are some students who could do well in chemistry and physics who aren’t given the chance to take those courses.

    Community college courses in our neck of the woods are now filled with enrolled college students. The dual-enrollment practices of the past are not possible when there are no seats to fill.

  12. It can be a rational decision to leave college. There are many careers which don’t require a college education. Other countries may provide college degrees at little or no cost, but when one must pay for it, the financial cost of a college degree is very important.

    By the way, Britain is now engulfed in student protests against the increase in college tuition. If the plan goes forward, many of those students won’t be able to afford college. If their college completion rate drops drastically, that will first and foremost reflect the change in the nation’s college financing apparatus.

  13. I was going to make the point about the cost of college in this country relative to other developed nations, but instead — what Cranberry said.

    I do have to add rather bluntly that I often see people pontificating away in absolute oblivion to the cost issue, which is the dominant issue. Clearly it’s more evident to those of us who are currently paying college tuition, but still, pontificators should really try to grasp the issues before they pontificate.

  14. It’s one thing to offer sciences, or any other classes, even on an alternate-year basis (which I had for chem/physics and American/Brit lit); it’s another to make seriously unrealistic graduation requirements for all students.

    Requiring three lab sciences, precalc, foreign languages etc. for college admission is highly desirable. However, not all HS students are academically able and/or motivated enough to pass a real class in such subjects and making them a graduation requirement is ridiculous.

  15. Who decides if a student is incapable of passing a class? I’m not trying to be provocative. It’s an earnest question. As far as I know, the schools don’t administer intelligence tests. It might be better if they did–or at least more fair to bright students who don’t have supportive parents.

    Schools don’t have infinite funds. There is thus a certain degree of rationing of educational opportunities. In our little towns, though, I know of honors-track students who are held together by tutors, and students on the college track who are bored out of their gourds. The relative affluence of the students’ parents determines who is placed in which track, with the exception of the truly noticeably bright.

    Yes, there are students who will never be able to pass a high school chemistry course. On the other hand, that’s no reason to deny college-prep course material to students who could do the work. It’s a good thing colleges put an end to the remedial class racket. In all fairness, that requires high schools to invest resources in academic matters. From the taxpayers’ standpoint, you either pay for it at the high school level, or you pay for it at the college level. In the past, states have encouraged small districts to regionalize, to make more ambitious course offerings cost-effective.

  16. Cranberry, I have no problem with allowing kids who may have a weaker track record to challenge themselves with physics and chemistry (although perhaps not honors/AP) as long as the course is not watered down for them. They have to know going in that they will have to work very hard to keep up and that they may not do well and may not pass. I am against making chemistry and physics state-wide graduation requirements for all kids, regardless of their ability, interest, work ethic or future plans.

  17. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m with momof4 — at least I think I am.

    Establish the courses *first*. Set bars for performance and achievement. Let the teacher, or the administrator, or the parent say “This is what shall be acceptable, this is what shall be excellent, and this is what shall be expected.”

    Then let the students meet those standards or not as they will. If they do not, take additional action as needed, but do not move the standard.

    Children and adolescents are not foolish in every respect, and they are aware of when they have accomplished something of merit and when they have not. They may participate in the fraud of lowered standards, of subjective success, but they will never find solace or happiness in it.

  18. 1 unit of visual or performing arts.

    This looks like a measure designed to weed out prospective engineers and students with e.g. Asperger’s.  I hope the dean of the UT Knoxville school of Engineering has the sense to waive that requirement, or at the very least scratch the HS grades in those courses from GPA when looking at admissions criteria.

  19. Momof4 and Michael E. Lopez, I think you both know a great deal about how the k-12 system works in the US. I know quite a bit, too, gathered from reading and experience. We are the exception.

    Many people don’t know how the educational system has changed, even those paragons of helicopterness, the affluent suburban parent. As my friends’ children reach college-application age, some are discovering that their straight-A students aren’t competitive in their high school’s pool, in part because their children were steered into less demanding courses. In my opinion, those children could have done honors level work, but they fell for the stress-avoidance advice dispersed by the guidance department. You could say, they should have known that taking a college-prep level rather than an honors level course would have consequences, but they didn’t–they trusted the guidance department.

    In comparison to some small schools in other states, one would think that this high school would have no reason to steer students away from a demanding course load. One would be wrong. These are parents who have attended college, and who are paying far closer attention to their children’s progress than most parents.

    Thus, looking at my friends’ experiences, I do not believe that all high school students have been placed in courses which challenge them adequately. Often, the lack of challenge may arise because the resources needed to create a chemistry class for all have been used for other goals. (sports teams, for example) Or, it’s too difficult to rework the high school schedule to fit in the classes. Or, if a student’s parents aren’t willing to show up in the guidance office, and sit there until an appropriate class has been found, he will be placed in whichever class makes life easiest for the high school administration. (By the way, sitting in the guidance office works. Of course, if you can’t arrange for time off from work, it’s impossible. One more means-linked difference between families.)

    I would be in favor of a return to the use of IQ tests to help find the appropriate placement for students. In my opinion, dropping the tests has meant that students who might have been placed in challenging courses blend into the crowd. Studies have shown that, time and again, we see what we expect to see. Do we expect the lawyer’s daughter to do better than the milkman’s daughter? Yes, we do. It may not be true, but dropping IQ tests for placement has been a disservice to bright children of limited means. Some high schools have such limited course offerings, it’s impossible to tell who could do more challenging work, and who couldn’t.

  20. My experience has been that parents should assume the guidance is useless at best and is likely to be a hindrance. As a group, I found guidance counselors to be far more interested in the emotional side of counseling than in the academic one, to the point that their knowledge of academic matters, either in HS or for college, was almost totally lacking. At the high school my older kids attended, incoming freshmen were told that they should take no more than one or two honors classes, when the reality was that the whole top of the class took ALL academic classes at honors/AP level. This was (and still is) a very strong school with an especially strong math-science program, in an affluent suburb where most kids are honors-capable. When my kids were there, a solid B average without honors/AP classes placed a student in the bottom half of the class. Paying attention to the guidance counselor on the honors issue put some capable kids behind the 8-ball regarding class rank by the end of their first semester.


  1. […] Who's to blame for college dropouts? — Joanne Jacobs Of all pre-college curricula, the highest level of mathematics one studies in secondary school has the strongest continuing influence on bachelor's degree completion. Finishing a course beyond the level of Algebra 2 (for example, It may not be true, but dropping IQ tests for placement has been a disservice to bright children of limited means. Some high schools have such limited course offerings, it's impossible to tell who could do more challenging work, […]