Collegiate Attrition After Year One
That’s right, taxpayers. A new report shows that states appropriated almost $6.2 billion for four-year colleges and universities between 2003 and 2008 to help pay for the education of students who did not return for year two. Specifically, the study shows that states sent $6.2 billion in general funds and $1.4 billion in grants to colleges and universities for first-year students who did not return. The dollar figures are taken from government data and aggregated by the nonprofit American Institutes for Research.
Looking further into the matter, some experts believe the root cause can be pinned to one core issue: state imposed budget cuts. According to California Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, state-imposed budget cuts that have slashed classes, increased student fees and reduced staff are more of a hindrance.
And how does this impact students? An economist might look at this situation and argue that the marginal cost of students continuing their studies after their first year of college far outweighs the marginal benefit of these same students continuing their studies after their first year of college. In other words, it’s likely that students will not feel incentivized to continue their academic pursuits, knowing that massive loans, coupled with the absence of required classes to transfer to 4 year colleges, will only set them farther back.
And it’s clear that students are not the only ones who are suffering. An appropriation of $1.4 billion dollars of tax-payer funds to cover the cost of grants for students who do not return after their first year results in an enormous loss in social welfare to taxpayers too.
So, what’s the point then of continuing to learn when both students and tax payers suffer? Well, there are several reasons, but all fall under the umbrella concept of learning for the sake of learning. As cliched as this sounds, students fall into the trap thinking that any educational opportunity beyond high school is the sole ticket to a rewarding and fruitful career and lifestyle.
And that’s problematic-this attitude that higher education is the only solution, rather than a key piece to the solution. In a youtube video that I have grown to love, Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, discusses a case study, where MIT students were subjected to a series of tasks, some rudimentary, some highly cognitive. The students’ reward was based on their performance. Those students who demonstrated below average performance received a a small monetary reward, followed by larger rewards for the middle tier and elite performers.
And what did this experiment reveal? For rudimentary tasks, the carrot-on-a-stick model works well to optimize student performance. In other words, a greater reward results in more output by the performer. However, the model breaks for highly cognitive tasks. Put another way, when students did not have to perform a basic mechanical task, their performance in response to these financial incentives dropped significantly.
Pink’s video presents a potential solution to the collegiate attrition problem: change the way colleges market higher education, and perhaps students will feel incentivized to continue their studies after year one. For instance, placing a greater emphasis on the learning for the sake of learning instead of rehashing the same old study highlighting the financial benefits of higher education, may incentivize students to return after year one.
And how does Mr. O’Connell recommend we begin to resolve the issue? “The fact that we have these numbers helps with accountability and transparency,” he said. “We should do exit interviews with students and learn why they leave education.”
That’s a start, but it’s obvious that it will take more than exit interview or survey for any real change to occur.