Tuning In to Dropping Out

. . . Over the past 25 years, the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in STEM subjects has remained more or less constant.

Consider computer technology. In 2009 the United States graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. That’s not bad, but we graduated more students with computer-science degrees 25 years ago!

The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering, math, and statistics. Few disciplines have changed as much in recent years as microbiology, but in 2009 we graduated just 2,480 students with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology—about the same number as 25 years ago. Who will solve the problem of antibiotic resistance?

If students aren’t studying science, technology, engineering, and math, what are they studying?. . .

. . .The obsessive focus on a college degree has served neither taxpayers nor students well. Only 35 percent of students starting a four-year degree program will graduate within four years, and less than 60 percent will graduate within six years. Students who haven’t graduated within six years probably never will. The U.S. college dropout rate is about 40 percent, the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world. That’s a lot of wasted resources. Students with two years of college education may get something for those two years, but it’s less than half of the wage gains from completing a four-year degree. No degree, few skills, and a lot of debt is not an ideal way to begin a career.

College dropouts are telling us that college is not for everyone. Neither is high school. In the 21st century, an astounding 25 percent of American men do not graduate from high school. A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. “Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years,” we tell the students, “and all will be well.” Lots of students, however, crash before they reach the end of the road. Who can blame them? Sit-down learning is not for everyone, perhaps not even for most people. There are many roads to an education. . . . <Read the complete article.>

Via Alex Tabarrok, The Chronicle of Higher Ed.