Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My University's Graduation Rate: Poll Results and Analysis

As of now, not a single person has been able to guess the graduation rate at my university. The correct answer is 46%. This, of course, is very low. It means that less than a half of the students who are accepted into the university manage to graduate. Now that I am in my fourth semester of teaching at this school, I am beginning to understand why this happens.

Of course, many of our students end up dropping out for financial or family reasons, which is, obviously, not good. An absolute majority of our students work, and it's difficult to combine that with attending school full time. Still, there is something else, a sad reality that nobody seems to want to address. And the actual name of my university isn't that important here because I'm sure this happens in many places.* There is a dramatic difference between freshmen and the rest of the student body. This semester I'm teaching only higher level courses and the experience couldn't be more different from what it was like to teach a mostly freshman course last semester.

There is a certain percentage of students that come in who are completely unprepared for college. Any college. Actually, they would benefit from repeating the fifth grade. They often have trouble reading and understanding even a page of text (in their own language, of course.) These are the students who regale me with the pearls of the "Latin America is a city" and "Africa is a country in Latin America" variety. These are the students who don't know who the Jews are, who never heard of the Roman Empire, who don't know that Portuguese is spoken in Brazil, who believe that the US not only existed in the year 711 but also invaded Europe at that point in time, who think that the US won the Spanish Civil war, and who have no idea what the European Union is.

These students are not a majority, of course. Their presence in the first-year classes is not any less daunting because of that, however. Whenever I have to interrupt my lecture to explain how many continents there are and where they are located, other students get really frustrated and discouraged. One of my students told me that the class reminded him of high school at times because we kept spending time on discussing some very basic material. Obviously, I would love not to have to explain what the capital of Spain is and who Fidel Castro is, and so on.

All of this is just as frustrating for the weak students. One of them came to my office to scream in frustration because everything we discussed went completely over her head. She said she didn't understand a word of what we were discussing, and I believe her. From what I know of this student's basic reading and writing skills (or lack thereof), she will be dropping out at the end of the year.

I'm not sure at this point where these kids come from, and why their ignorance is so dire. Whenever I discuss this with people, they immediately start asking me about the students' race, which betrays a nasty set of stereotypes. This issue has nothing to do with race. The racial breakdown among the weak students is exactly the same as within the rest of the student body. Many of the weak students seem to be from fanatically religious backgrounds. (I already know that if a person starts an essay about the Hispanic Baroque with the words "I'm a young Christian woman," chances are this student will be from the soon-to-drop-out category.) Probably, these students don't know some of the basic middle school material because they were the victims of homeschooling. And don't even get me started on what a barbaric practice that is.

I don't know what goal it serves to accept people who have absolutely no chance of graduating. It isn't very honest because they invest money and time into an endeavor that is doomed from the start. As a result, we end up with a bunch of drop-outs who hate even the word college because of the horrible time they had while trying to achieve what for them is utterly impossible. The students who do remain lose part of their respect for their educational institution and for themselves because they are initially lumped into the same classes with people who are barely literate. The teaching faculty get jaded and disillusioned because every time you hear "what's a verb?" from a college student, you lose faith in the system of higher education.

This is why financial considerations cannot serve as a guiding principle of student enrollment. When we worship the numbers as our supreme deity, we forget that quantity is often the enemy of quality. Often it seems like as long as prospective students are breathing, there will be a college somewhere ready to accept them, take their money, and kick them out because they should not have been there in the first place. This dishonest practice ends up hurting the very concept of higher education.

*Please do not bombard me with comments and e-mails revealing to me the name of my university. I know it. If you know it too, good for you. If not, I don't think it matters all that much.


Izgad said...

If government stopped giving tax dollars to fund their education, these students who lack the skills to pass would not be in school in the first place. This would free up funds to make a better school for the 46% who should be there. Make people pay for their own education and graduation rates shoot through the roof.

Clarissa said...

I don't think they are not paying for the education. If they didn't, the university wouldn't want them at all. What other reason can there be for enrolling them if not to get their tuition fees?

Izgad said...

The government is helping to pay so those students who should not be there are not paying the full cost.

Does Milton Friedman's take on the situation fit with what you see? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdUHbs-x5sc&feature=related

Melissa said...

I'd actually be interested in reading your views on homeschooling.

Clarissa said...

Good idea. I'll definitely will.

Anonymous said...

More students means more federal financial aid money and private loan money coming into the university. The prorating schedule and the schedule to find out if a student is going to pass are slanted in such a way that a student must know they are going to fail before any meaningful work has been done in a semester if they hope to have any refund. So that student who you know is going to fail in week 3 has probably passed the point s/he'd be prorated any money from the university, so they might just hang on anyways til the end of the semester.

Clarissa said...

OK, this explains a lot. I had no idea about how this works. Thanks for explaining, Anonymous.

fairykarma said...

Hmmm... a strange familiarity indeed..

I tutored a girl called J. once. Strangely we were both petitioning to get into the same Nursing program. I recall my frustrations with her often. We were taking basic organic chemistry and I was having to explain to this girl what an atom was. She was flabbergasted when I explained to her everything around us was composed of small atoms. At some point though, reason overwhelmed my compassion and I just decided to run away from her. I got up said I would be right back, and just ran away. Not a metaphor. I RAN!

Each semester, I would keep seeing her! I avoided her, always! I finally got into the Nursing program. There she was! Still frustrating everyone, including the teacher.

During clinical, she chanced upon me with a puzzled look. She told me, "I accidentally pricked myself with an Enoxaparin (blood thinner) needle, and then I gave it to the patient. Is that OK?"

I went to the instructor. Pretensions of concern as usual. Nothing happened.

Semester 1. Still there. Semester 2. Still there. Semester 3. Still there. Half way through semester 3. She was gone. Never to be seen again. Everyone was relieved, except me. Deep inside was a deep despair, another victim of the system, milked of all her worth, then cast into the fires of subsistence once again.

To be fair, I only felt this because I too have been kicked out of college, but I attended a high tier college. Once you're kicked out from the top colleges, there's still plenty of colleges that want you. But where does one go when they can't even cut it at bottom tier? I'm a lazy kid from a comfortable background who has plenty of chances to F up. She's a poor girl originally from Mississippi who probably had one chance at salvation. She put her money in the education bubble because of the propaganda that formal higher education is for everyone.

I used to be egalitarian in my views of knowledge and education. Not so much anymore. Some people just aren't wired to be receptive to knowledge and general curiosity about new ideas. Sure on a basic level, like all people they are receptive to new things, but in a limited way. But many of you reading this blog are the types who are constantly reading books, reading knowledge-laden blogs, constantly talking to people about ideas and getting their take on it, shifting your perceptual schemas when new knowledge conflicts and disproves longstanding beliefs. Stuck in an environment of restricted information, you'd surely just stop eating and starve yourself. What's the point of life if you can't learn? That's how WE think. That's not how everybody thinks though.

This is not a bad thing, in the way having blue eyes is not a bad thing. I just don't think these people belong in Anthropology 101 or History 101 or Sociology 101. It's a waste of their personal time. There must be other skills they could be mastering that match up with whatever makes them tick.

Clarissa said...

That is absolutely right. I couldn't agree more. Some people are just not made for higher education. Which does not peclude them from being absolutely great at other things. This is why it's so wrong to lure them into college with false promises.

The atom story and the needle story are so funny that I laughed until I drooled. Literally. And then when you think that it's actually true, it gets too scary.

fairykarma said...

My apologies for the repeated submissions. I had no idea the first one went through. I kept getting an error after each submission telling me it was too long aka Google saying I talk too much.

Clarissa said...

Oviously, Google has no idea what constitutes a good comment. :-)

Angie Harms. said...

Hi Clarissa. We hear a lot about your Midwestern university, for obvious reasons. I graduated from another Midwestern university and, as an excellent student, experienced similar frustrations. You have also mentioned in previous posts that you taught at Cornell at one point, and what I am curious to hear about is how much of a difference you see between the students at the two universities, and also with students at Yale, as I'm sure you taught there while working on your Ph.D. I imagine it is pretty significant, but I would be very curious to hear an insider's perspective. In my current job in Silicon Valley, I work with a fair number of Stanford grads. Some of them impress me greatly. Others...well, let's just say it kind of blows my mind that they were able to not only get in to such a selective school but also to graduate.

Also, while I know that you are often amused by the students at your current university, do you not aspire to someday receive tenure at a school where, say, the graduation rate is a bit higher (and you have to spend less time explaining that Latin America is not a country)? I have also taught and love teaching...but I think I could only make a career of it (in the U.S.) if I were working 90% of the time with "talented and gifted," or at least with the kind of inquisitive students who clearly love to learn. In this country (where I have attended school) and in Japan (where I have taught) it's not the students I blame for their ignorance, but the unforgivably bad systems of education in these "first world" countries.

(I found I have much more patience with my friends, for example, in Guatemala who, when they write me emails, don't have a clue where one word ends and the next begins, interchange b and v as if they were the same letter, and have no idea that such a thing as punctuation exists...because Guatemala is a severely disadvantaged country where kids only go to school for 4 hours a day and an education beyond the 6th grade is not even the norm.)

But anyway, I'm digressing. Do you plan to apply for positions elsewhere in the future? I have often wondered how you stand it in the rural Midwest. I grew up there and fled as soon as possible, which was at age 16 as an exchange student to Spain. I only ended up in college there after attending two other universities and spending a year in Berlin, and then only because I couldn't pass up in-state tuition. (Another post of yours that I love is the one about "It's a great place to raise a family" - absolutely spot on."

Anyway, I want to say how much I appreciate your attitude. I had a couple of professors at my Midwestern university that were so excellent as to make my whole time there worthwhile, but who clearly could have found "better positions" elsewhere. The "A" students of the Midwest are, I'm absolutely positive, eternally grateful for your presence amongst them.