A caveat before you read this post. I am not saying that the dread Frumious Status Quo is a good thing, that improvement isn't needed, that everything is hunky-dory. I am saying that the U.S. educational system is being unfairly blasted based on comparisons that are unsound and invalid.
Alarms are being raised about a new report from the College Board.
Take NPR's coverage as a typical example:
“A new report warns that the United States is falling farther and farther behind other countries in the proportion of adults with a college education. Researchers say the decline could have devastating economic and social consequences for the country.
According to the College Completion Agenda, no more than 40 percent of the U.S. adult population has a college degree, and even though most high school graduates enroll in college, only 56 percent earn an undergraduate degree in six years or less.”
Red alert! Our schools and our teachers are blowing it yet again!
Yet I had some questions about this report, starting with what the proportion of adults in the United States with a college education has been in the past, and the comparisons with other countries. I couldn't find that information in the new report, but it references a 2008 report, and I did find references in that report, “Coming to Our Senses,” also from the College Board. That report says that the U.S. was No. 2 in the world in college completion at some unspecified time in the past, and is now No. 11. It also says that the U.S. led the world in high school graduation throughout most of the 20th century, but by 2005, the U.S. was 21st out of 27 advanced economies in high school graduation.
Well, sorry, that latter claim is bogus. Here's why: In a number of other nations – I don't have the wherewithal to fully research which or how many other nations – students legitimately graduate from high school after fewer years in school than here in the United States. In the Netherlands (as in many nations), students are separated onto vocational vs. academic tracks at middle school age, and students on vocational tracks legitimately graduate from high school after the equivalent of our 10th grade, at age 15 or 16.
Let's compare. In the Netherlands, many students who leave school at the end of the 10th grade are considered legitimate high school graduates. In the United States, all students who leave school at the end of the 10th grade are dropouts. (Those Netherlands students then go on to further advanced vocational training.)
Q: Now, class, can the Netherlands' high school graduation rate be legitimately compared to the U.S. graduation rate? A: No, they can't be compared because the circumstances are entirely different.
I am told that Switzerland has a similar system, and that Japan's vocational tracks graduate even younger. Other countries? Where's the College Board research on that?
OK, now to the college graduation comparisons. The previous discussion raises an initial question: Are we counting those students in the Netherlands who graduate from advanced vocational training as graduates? Expand this question to all other such programs in all other nations. Discuss among yourselves.
And more. Regarding the figures on the percentage of Americans ages 25-34 who have an A.A. degree or higher: A significant percentage of adults ages 25-34 here in California and in the United States are immigrants who came to this country after the age of K-12 education. Are they counted in these figures on college graduates? How many of them are counted, and how do they impact those figures?
Still more: In some (again, an unknown number of) other nations, students attend college at no cost to themselves. In this country, students and their families pay college tuition, a famously significant, life-altering expense.
And more: In other advanced economies, social safety nets put a college student on an entirely different footing in regard to paying his/her own living expenses.
All these caveats make it impossible to accurately or fairly compare U.S. high school graduation rates to other nations' high school graduation rates, and they make it impossible to accurately or fairly compare U.S. college graduation rates to other nations' college graduation rates.
Unfortunately, it would take vast research resources to dig up further information on the education situation in different nations, and it would take data-crunching skills that I lack to present that information as statistics to respond to the College Board claims. The only thing I can say is that the information we do have shows us plainly that the College Board studies are making sweeping statements – parroted by the press – that are not valid.
The irony of the academically, intellectually and methodologically flawed information coming from the College Board, of all organizations, leaps out a bit.