by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

I can't comment on the accuracy of the rankings found in the Washington Monthly, but I would like to point out a major error in logic with respect to comparing college dropout rates with high school rates.  As a former university administrator, I was one of those professionals entrusted with the task of compiling such data, and I'd like to offer a few points.
 
1- Within the university community, a transfer is considered a "dropout."  If 10 of our students transfer to another university because they have decided to major in nursing or forest management, then they are listed as dropouts.  We do not track them once they leave, so we have no way of knowing when or if they graduated from another institution. 
2 - Unlike high school, a college education is not free.  Yes, students do flunk out, but a large number of dropouts simply can't afford to stay.  Many transfer to less expensive schools, and some come back a few years later, but this fact needs to be considered when discussing college graduation statistics.
 
3 - To date, college is still an "optional" experience for those who choose to go.  As someone who worked closely with students (particularly freshmen), I can tell you that most freshmen have absolutely no idea why they are even in college, much less if they are in the "right one."  I could spot future dropouts within 3 days of orientation.  We tried to focus our energy on those who most needed it, but most can't be saved.  Some need time to mature; some needed a different environment (larger, smaller, closer to home, etc), and some simply weren't cut out for college and never should have attended in the first place.  Of course, with these students, I blame the adults in their lives (teachers, parents, society in general).  Too much emphasis is placed on going to a 4-yr institution at the tender age of 18.  It isn't necessary, and it isn't the right choice for a large number of students.  We do all of them a disservice to pretend otherwise.  

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