Poll: Public blames grad rates on college students

Thursday, December 9, 2010 | 11:14 a.m. CST; updated 7:09 p.m. CST, Thursday, December 9, 2010

The public pins most of the blame for poor college graduation rates on students and their parents and gives a pass to colleges, government officials and others, a new Associated Press-Stanford University poll shows

All sectors of American higher education received high marks for quality. That extends to for-profit colleges, despite recent criticism of dubious recruiting tactics, high student loan default rates and other problems at some schools.

The belief that students are most at fault for graduation rates is a troubling sign for reformers who have elevated college completion to the forefront of higher education policy debates and pushed colleges to fix the problem, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford.

"The message is, 'Students, you had your shot at college and failed and it's your fault, not the college,'" Kirst said.

When asked where the blame lies for graduation rates at public four-year colleges, 7 in 10 said students shouldered either a great deal or a lot of it, and 45 percent felt that way about parents.

Others got off relatively easy: Anywhere between 25 percent and 32 percent of those polled blamed college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials and federal education officials.

"We're all responsible for our own education, and by the time you get to college you are definitely responsible and mature," said Deanna Ginn, a mother of 12 from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Taking a closer look at the numbers:

— Republicans are likelier than Democrats to blame federal officials for today's college graduation rates — 34 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats point at them.

— There's a small partisan difference on the student blame question: Seventy-seven percent of Republicans and 68 percent of Democrats fault students heavily.

— Minorities are more prone than whites to blame professors and teachers for college graduation rates, with 40 percent of minorities but just 29 percent of whites doing so.

— Fifty-seven percent of minorities blame parents for college graduation rates, while just 40 percent of whites do.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the results are deeply troubling and mean elite colleges and universities have succeeded in diverting blame from themselves.

"Those supporting the completion agenda need to push back — hard — and emphasize the role colleges play in supporting or undermining student success," she said.

After long emphasizing access to college, higher education policy debates have shifted only recently to focusing on getting students through. The Obama administration has called for the United States to again lead the world in a number of college graduates by 2020.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation and others have directed money and attention to states and colleges to improve completion rates, and several states are taking action.

Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, which championed such efforts, disagreed that the poll spells trouble for reform.

"This will play out like the high school dropout issue," he said. "The more it becomes a subject of public discussion, the more advances we will make on confronting the college dropout problem."

Just over half of first-time students who entered college in 2003-04 had not earned a degree or credential within six years, the Education Department reported recently. That's slightly worse than students who started in 1995-96.

Experts caution it is tricky to measure success and compare graduation rates because today's older, less-traditional college student population takes more time to finish school and is harder to track.

The AP-Stanford poll found most people were happy with the quality of higher education in their states.

Despite severe budget cuts and spiraling tuition at many public four-year colleges, those schools received the highest marks: Seventy-four percent in the poll called them excellent or good.

But others institutions got strong marks, too: Four-year private nonprofit colleges (71 percent), two-year public colleges (69 percent), private for-profit colleges (66 percent) and private for-profit trade schools (57 percent).

That's a rare glimpse at public opinion about for-profit colleges, which have been fighting proposed regulations that would cut off federal aid.

The poll also found overwhelming agreement that there is a link between the nation's prosperity and the quality of its education system.

Overall, 88 percent say economic prosperity and quality education are closely entwined, a 12-percentage-point increase over a similar poll two years ago. Nearly 80 percent said that having all Americans graduate from a two-or four-year college would help the economy.

Yet most in the poll are unwilling to invest more in the nation's school systems in order to obtain that economic payoff — just 42 percent favor raising taxes to pay for better education.

The poll was conducted September 23-30 by Abt SRBI Inc. It involved interviews on landline and cellular telephones with 1,001 adults nationwide, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Stanford University's participation was made possible by a grant from the Gates Foundation.

Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed information to this report.


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Ellis Smith December 9, 2010 | 12:08 p.m.

Not too long ago there was an interesting discussion in the Tribune as to why it takes so long these days for some students to complete a bachelor's degree (in anything).

One reason, advanced by several of the posters, is that many students today do not feel "pressured" to complete a degree in four years.

In management theory there is something called Parkinson's Law. This should not be confused with Parkinson's disease (it's named after a different Parkinson). Parkinson's Law states that the time required to complete an assignment is apt to be directly proportional to the time allotted to complete the assignment. In the present case, if I believe I must complete my degree (due to financial or other constraints) in eight semesters then I will bust a gut to do so.

And that's pretty much what many of us did do in the 1950s, when borrowing large sums of money to finance college expenses was not the norm.

One problem cited today, and I'm getting this from my own granddaughters, is that scheduling conflicts cause things to go beyond eight semesters (or twelve quarters). I can appreciate that, but should scheduling conflicts cause more than a one-semester delay?

I will guarantee you that finishing on time in the 1950s was NOT because we were smarter than today's college students. :)

(Report Comment)
Zach Pyrite December 9, 2010 | 12:27 p.m.


At least in my own personal degree program I have taken 6 years, now going on 6.5 years because of the massive student loan problem.

What is my advantage to completing my degree is I cannot find a job with adequate pay to start paying off my loans? It is more economical for me to keep delaying and taking minimum hours.

I am 3 hours short of my BA. It costs me $1500 a semester to pay for my 6 credit hours. So about $3000 a year.

Now, my student loan payments would start at $650 a month. Or about $7800 a year. Well over half of my take home after taxes, insurance payments, etc.

It's a shame. I want to finish, I want to pay off my loans. My only debt is my student loans. I even work full time at a job that pays very well, better than most jobs would to new graduates with my similar degree (History). But it still is not enough to finish and assume that debt.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 9, 2010 | 12:58 p.m.

Zach Pyrite:

"What is my advantage to completing my degree if I cannot find a job with adequate pay to start paying off my loans."

Don't know what to tell you; this isn't a problem normally encountered by engineering graduates, especially those who are now starting work with no prior experience at as much as $100K a year.

BTW, I really like "Pyrite" as a family name. Cool! There are pyrite minerals, you know. One of them has the nickname "fool's gold." :)

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire December 9, 2010 | 1:33 p.m.

There is no way to fault one party here. I place most of the blame on the students because they are the ones impacted. I place the secondary blame on the family because most people are quite unprepared for their experience despite having over twelve years of time to get ready. I place a small amount of blame on the institution and on the government which oversees them. It is important to fault the government as the government is the leading provider of education during those twelve years. We might also remember that this is a "land grant" college and it was located here to make it as financially difficult to attend as possible. Now that most have spiffy automobiles, we make it difficult by charging more for the tuition than any amount of instruction could possibly be worth. The city grew up around the college because there was a college and not the reverse. Traditionally the idea has been to segregate society based on wealth. Some of the better schools choose to segregate their students based on ability or achievement.
I much prefer the latter.

But that isn't what we are discussing here, unfortunately. I see nothing wrong with flunking students.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 9, 2010 | 1:42 p.m.

The time to pay for college is before you start, not after you graduate. By that I mean your parents should start a savings account for you as soon as you're born, and every penny -- birthday money, summer jobs, allowance, you name it -- should go into that account.

If you and your parents are concerned that those savings won't be enough, you can hedge by supplementing it with investments such as a 529 plan.

As a teenager, you also should learn to delay gratification, such as not spending $1.50 on a bottle of water or $50/month on a smartphone, because that frugality will minimize your need for a loan to pay for school.

This is how I got through college and graduate school with zero debt and money in my pocket.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire December 9, 2010 | 1:48 p.m.

I believe that the majority of students who don't complete a degree are leaving because they are failing their courses and I believe that most of those who do fail their courses would not have if they had simply put forth more effort. I don't believe that there are many classes offered to undergraduates that actually challenge the average person beyond his or her abilities. You would have to attend Rolla for that sort of experience. They flunk students at Rolla.

I am also unsure what benefit society would draw from allowing demotivated students an extra pass. If you can't sleep through four years of MIZZOU then maybe you shouldn't.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 9, 2010 | 3:11 p.m.

Paul said:

"They flunk students at Rolla."


Assuming you aren't referring to Rolla High School (where rumor has it that they also flunk some students), you are correct. But things have changed in engineering education since the 1950s. Then it was, "We'll throw your sorry ass out on the street, and who gives a damn!" Now, while standards have NOT changed, time is spent trying to assist students who appear to genuinely have what it takes but who may be struggling due to personal and/or financial issues.

You know, an 18-19 year old American male (and typically 75% of freshmen and sophomore engineering students are male) isn't the most emotionally stable of humans. :)

One of the best programs I'm aware of is at Colorado School of Mines, a state supported technical institute with about half the students that MS&T has. They employ nightly and weekend study groups, conducted by the students but under faculty supervision. That should keep those kids out of the Molson-Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado! Seriously, I've sat in on a session, and I wish we'd had them in the 1950s.

(Report Comment)
Justin Ritter December 9, 2010 | 4:57 p.m.

@ Ellis -

I recall having similar study sessions when I attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in the late 90's. My study sessions were mandated by the fraternity I pledged to (IIT frat...not like MU), and were more for sheer academic survival than for keeping us out of trouble. They helped my grades, but they couldn't help this small-town Missouri boy hack Chicago. I high-tailed it back to Missouri in the middle of my sophomore year. I had enough student loans (even with my sizable scholarship) to keep me paying for a good while!

I also recall plenty of people flunking. Unlike some of the humanities, either you know calculus, fluid dynamics, organic chemistry, etc, or you don't. I'm one to talk, though...I ended up with a psychology degree!

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 9, 2010 | 6:04 p.m.


You're right, either you know the basics or you don't. I did three night school courses at IIT in the late 1950s, including Nuclear Physics for Engineers.

I commuted from Hammond, Indiana. IIT is located in a rather scary part of Chicago (but so is University of Chicago).

You may have misinterpreted my remark about Colorado School of Mines and Molson-Coors brewery. I was kidding: the sessions are to help engineering students, not to keep them out of the brewery! CSM students and alumni get kidded about the fact that the two major employers in Golden, Colorado are CSM and Molson-Coors. Downtown Golden is sandwiched between the two. Golden is a very nice place (~20,000 resident population). Not a lot bigger than Rolla, but otherwise no comparison!

(Report Comment)
Rich Balldinger December 9, 2010 | 9:47 p.m.

I flunked out of Mizzou twice. Both times were my fault. Who in their right mind would think that it wasn't my own fault? I finally got a degree when I decided to take it seriously and graduated with a 3.92 when all said and done. Now, I own a company that I started myself and am doing great.

Paul Allaire had some interesting points here. The point that I would add is that a college degree isn't worth much for the majority of job sectors -- especially given the sharp increase of tuition to wages earned. I think a greater emphasis should be put on college kids to start their own business instead of thinking that they are entitled to a job because of their coursework achievements in theory. I wish that I had this guidance when I was twenty.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith December 10, 2010 | 4:50 a.m.

Missourian Editors & Reporters:

One University of Missouri System campus in June of 2010 mailed a brochure to its individual and corporate supporters, thanking them for financially supporting a recently-completed seven-year program called "Advancing Excellence." The brochure contains the following statement:

"You've paved the way for bright, hard-working students to change the world, one problem solver at a time. One-third are first-generation college students. 32% are from household incomes under $40,000."

Assuming those statistics are correct, isn't this a classic example of why we HAVE public higher education, and who public higher education is SUPPOSED to serve?

Homework assignment for the Missourian: Determine the statistics for each of the four campuses as well as for the university system as a whole - and publish them! The data may already be available in a form you can publish. Are there significant differences between campuses, and, if so, is there any indication as to why those differences exist.

(Report Comment)

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