It’s Broken – Have We Noticed?

We are awash in educational data. Reports emerge from agencies, foundations, corporations and institutions, and for those with the time and an inclination, further opportunities about. There are mysteries in educations, to be sure, but their essence and appeal has shifted from search to analysis. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to absorbing and digesting large pieces of challenging information.

Shortly after Thanksgiving the National Center for Education Statistics Institute of Education Sciences issues a report with the relatively bland title “Persistence and Attainment of 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students: After 6 Years.” Stated simply, the report offers a first look at the enrollment and employment experiences of a national sample of undergraduates who started their experience in higher education in 2003-04. The data is available to the public at and the report was not written to be conclusive.

The data set of approximately 19,000 first-time in higher education students is drawn from a sample of about 90,000 students in 1,600 institutions across the country. The students were interviewed three times: at the end of their first year in postsecondary education, in 2006, after three years, and in 2009, 6 years later. The interviews were of varying lengths and focus. Thanks to the wonders of life in American in the 21st century, practically all or the material is available on the web.

The findings, presented in straightforward tables, charts the educational successes and failures of these 19,000 students. Presented in tables with a minimum of text, the report is in many ways a report card for our overall system of higher education. And what is our grade? The news is bad.

After 6 years at any institution of higher education:

  • 9% earned a certificate
  • 9% earned an associates degree
  • 31% received a bachelor’s degree
  • 15% had not earned a degree but were still enrolled
  • 35% had not earned a degree and were not enrolled

That, in a nutshell, is the overall success rate of higher education in the US: less than a third of those who enter higher education achieve a college baccalaureate degree in six years of study.

Stated differently, two out three students who begin in higher education never finish, never receive a degree or a certificate. They may or may not learn, but they most definitely do not obtain any credentials. That is an appalling figure. The numbers are even more depressing when broken down by ethnicity, with Black and Hispanic students graduating at even lower rates.

We see reports along similar lines every few months, each charting a different way in which the expectations of students and the public at large do not coincide with the reality of success in higher education. The chasm is truly extraordinarily large. It speaks to a problem that is greater than institutional policy or societal change. The failure rate is evidence that for many Americans – the majority of Americans – a college education is out of reach.

The dream of a college education is just that for many Americans: a dream.

People do have the opportunity to try. They can borrow money, take out student loans and find state and federal grant opportunities. As a society we encourage all to try. Unfortunately and unacceptably, most will not succeed.

The information in this report demands a sustained and uncomfortable look at our nation’s education systems. I am not sanguine that we will have it. But one of the reasons I chose a career in academia is that I am fundamentally optimistic about change. All educators are – we believe in the power of people to learn, grow, and improve.

David Potash