Where Have You Been?

Thursday, September 10, 2009
A spate of recent articles, including those covering Bill Bowen and Mike McPherson's new book (which I promise to review just as soon as my copy arrives), have left me a bit perplexed-- wondering aloud "where have you all been?" The punchline each time is that a fair proportion of adults starting college are not finishing. Yes, and duh. This is not new, and if it's news well I guess it's only because we've deliberately kept our heads in the sand.

But there's no way that folks like New York Times reporter David Leonhardt have been deliberately oblivious, and yet he's writing about low college completion rates as if they've just been unearthed. In a recent blog post, Kevin Carey implied the same-- just as he did in a recent American Enterprise Institute report. But this has been a prominent topic of discussion for years--maybe a decade plus! Just look at Kevin's own 2004 report A Matter of Degrees (which received plenty of media coverage), or the Spellings Commission report, or Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz's book. I know I could go back several more years and find plenty more evidence.

I think it's one thing to imply something is new when it isn't (because again, maybe you just didn't know, or you feel the issue still is widely known enough and want to beat the drum more), and it's another thing entirely to claim that policymakers still aren't paying attention. In Leonhardt's case, he's simply wrong when he says the current Administration isn't focused on college completion. Um, how about that $2.5 billion Access and Completion Fund, part of Obama's original budget proposal? What about the performance (outcomes)-based components of the new community college monies contained in HR 3221? Foundations like Lumina and Gates have been beating this drum for years, and those in the Administration are well aware. No one in DC is saying institutions should continue to be judged solely based on enrollment (even enrollment of disadvantaged groups). There is plenty of ado about completion rates. The question is now, what exactly are the best solutions? That's a debate that needs to be richer and more visible, since the answers are far from clear-- and we'd be terribly wrong to simply resort to NCLB-style responses that remind me of my toddler: "Institutions bad. Do wrong. I punish you and you do better. Now." Let's direct our energies toward really identifying the sources of the problems, and developing a sense of how reforms can be most effective. When I get a chance to read the new Bowen and McPherson book, I'm hoping I come away with new ideas on how to do that.