Why Do So Many Americans Drop Out of College?

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Unprepared students sign up for school because they think a degree is their passport to the middle class. They should have other options. 

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A student yawns during a late night algebra class at Bunker Hill Community College. Reuters

The phrase "dropout factory" is ordinarily applied to America's failing high schools -- the ones where students are expected to fall through the cracks, where those who make it past graduation and on to college are considered the exceptions, the lucky survivors. But by that definition, another level of U.S. education counts as a "dropout factory": our entire higher education system.

That's the basic message of a recent article by Reuters' Lou Carlozo, which digs into the reasons why so many American college students fail to finish their educations. Just 56 percent of students who embark on a bachelor's degree program finish within six years, according to a 2011 Harvard study titled Pathways to Prosperity. Just 29 percent of those who seek an associate's degree obtain it within three years. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, just 46 percent of Americans complete college once they start, worst among the 18 countries it tracks.

We're behind Slovakia. Slovakia. 

There's no single reason why America's dropout rate is so abominable, but here are some factors. The Reuters piece focuses largely on the cost of school, pointing to a Pew Research Center survey that found two-thirds of young Americans said they stopped their education in order to support a family, while 48 percent said they could not afford the expense. However, the survey included responses from both people who dropped out of school and those who never attended in the first place. 

There's another factor at play, though, which has less to do with the cost of a degree, and more to do with the changing nature of our job market, as well as the way our education system has failed to keep up with it. Today, it's harder to earn a middle-class wage without a college degree. As the Harvard study notes, high school grads make up just 41 percent of the U.S. workforce, down from 72 percent forty years ago. All of the net job growth since the 1970s has been in occupations that require some post-secondary education, whether it's a bachelor's or an associate's degree. That demand for skills is causing more students to sign up for school than ever before, as shown in this chart from Pew. 

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But once they get to class, not every student is prepared. Nor do they necessarily want to be at college, or have a clear notion of what they're doing there. Although Pew finds that 40 percent of young Americans are currently enrolled, the Harvard study notes that around 70 percent will try and take at least some college courses within two years of graduating high school. The economy is screaming that they need a degree. But once on campus, they don't last. 

The system is incredibly wasteful. The students who show up but never graduate require administrative and academic resources. They take up precious classroom space, shutting other students out of the courses they need to graduate on time. They incur student debt, but don't get a credential, which weighs on their own finances.  

This isn't how it works in the rest of the developed world. When all is said an done, about 40 percent of Americans earn a college degree, roughly the same as European countries such as France, Finland and Sweden. The difference? Young Europeans who opt out of college can take extensive vocational training during their equivalent of high school. Rather than spending money on community college courses or a bachelor's degree they aren't sure what to do with, they can learn hard skills that will prepare them for employment. The graph below, via the Harvard study, shows the percentage of European students in either school-based vocational training (in yellow), or combined school and work-based training (in purple). 

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All of this should come with a qualification: Europe's youth unemployment is much more severe than America's. But that doesn't necessarily mean their education system is getting it wrong. The continent's legions of jobless youth are the product of a sclerotic labor market, rigged to benefit older union members at the expense of recent graduates. 

Europe's own problems are evidence that more vocational training won't be a panacea the problems facing young Americans. But they would be a first step towards a less expensive, less wasteful educational system geared more towards the realities of the economy. Obviously, the system we have now, where students flock to college, only to be overwhelmed by it, isn't working. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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