Higher Education: The Dropout Dilemma, Part I

I’ve started a career out of comparing and contrasting all the educational similarities and differences I’ve seen as an American transplanted to Asia. One of my favorite similarities was how Chinese teachers I worked with projected corrections for all the perceived failings of their schools on to American education and vice versa. American teachers, for the most part, imagined Chinese students as highly attentive, studious, disciplined, respectful students – packed 100 to a class but still dutifully listening to Teacher, completing all their homework, and studying for all their exams. My Chinese coworkers imagined American high school classrooms as approximating The Dead Poet’s Society for every class, every day of the week.

One of my favorite contrasts is higher education enrollment. Let me start with what I dislike most about the Asian higher education system I’ve encountered: I taught at a Chinese “polytechnic” and worked with some brilliant students there. The students took a single test, the gaokao, which determined their entire educational future in one go. Couldn’t sleep well the night before? Welcome to ______ Polytechnic. Or nowhere. Once graduated from the polytechnic, there was (functionally) almost no chance of getting into a four-year university. On the university side of thing, (functionally) no one fails. Once you’re in, you’re in. The dies were set and cast the moment the gaokao tests were scored.

Contrast this with my home state where anyone with a high school diploma (or equivalent) is admitted to an affordable community college, and anyone who graduates from that system is guaranteed admittance to state university in the same field they graduated in. In fact, the state actively encouraged this. The reason being that the state university system was filled to the brim with failing freshman.

Some perspective: when I was doing my undergraduate in the early 2000s half of our student population were freshman. Think about that for a minute. A four-year college where half were still in the first year. The percentage of college seniors was in the low teens. Think about this less chronologically but by number of credits attained. Meaning, half of the students still considered, well, students had less than two full-time semesters worth of classes under their belt.

I’ve defended this model because I think it actively weeded out a lot of people who weren’t terribly interested in higher education. Of my friends who dropped out, few were poor per se. But they were tempted out of student life and into professional life. In America, you see, a non-college graduate will out-earn a college graduate until about the age of 30 when their income plateaus. I had to wait an extra four years to earn $30,000 a year. They were tempted into management positions or the service industry. Or they simply didn’t care that much about school. In America, it’s perfectly acceptable to not care about education. Contrast #8246.

I’ve argued to Asians this system, fundamentally, works. Take one of my favorite professors, a gay medieval scholar with a Ph.D. thesis on transgendered saints. You know who cares about the topic? About twenty people in a school of 15,000. Professor X would teach one MegaClass, history of course, with somewhere in the vicinity of 200 students and assisted by a squad of teaching assistants. He was then free to teach one or two more enriching classes to students who actually cared about his expertise. One class gets the bills paid, allowing for smaller specialism classes. Most non-tenured professors played this game. It paid their salary and subsidized the (arguably) more important classes for subject majors.

In Part II I want to bring up a good challenge to this model. Contrary to what I saw with my own social group, drop-out rates do seem to be very directly correlated with socio-economic status. My argument that those who were dropping out were just the ones who were there because “mommy and daddy told them to go to college” might well have just been what we students were telling ourselves about our disappearing classmates. And something, perhaps, that I need to let go of as a professional educationist.

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