Today is the traditional first day of the college fall semester. Back when colleges were smaller, the freshmen were crowded into an auditorium. The college president, or the dean would open up with a talk that began, "look to your left, look to your right," one of you (two at some colleges), will not graduate.
Administrators are a lot less harsh these days, but the facts remain the same. Almost everyone makes it to high school (overwhelmingly, pre-high school dropouts in the U.S. are immigrants). A minority are high school dropouts. A majority of high school graduates these days go to college. But, most people who start college don't earn degrees. The median American adult is a college dropout.
The question is whether this is any way to run a railroad. In many cases, failure is predictable, although the precision with which it can be predicted is not scientific.
Freshmen who enter college needing remedial work, most often in mathematics, but sometimes in reading and writing as well, or not having had a full college prep high school curriculum, are far more likely to fail. Freshmen who had poor grades in high school, or got poor scores on college entrance exams are far more likely to fail. Freshmen who come from low income families or are first generation college students (or both) are far more likely to fail. Freshmen who delay going to college after graduating from high school are far more likely to fail. Part-time college students are less likely to graduate. Students with poor study habits who scraped through high school by dint of wit, pleading, mandatory study halls, and parental structure are more likely to fail.
Looking simply at lifetime success, you might conclude that college is a good thing, even if you do drop out. Even limited exposure is worth it. College dropouts have higher lifetime earnings, are less prone to be unemployed, are more likely to get better jobs, and are far less likely to spend time in prison than high school graduates who don't go to college. A large share of the lifetime benefits of going to college accrue the moment you move into your dorm room your freshman year (and a large share of those who do drop out of college won't be back to move in their sophomore year).
Anecdotally, this can ring true as well. I know some people who are quite successful in their careers and lives who didn't finish college. I know far fewer people who are successful in their careers and lives who didn't at least start college.
But, the very plausible inference is that this is simply a product of sorting. Smarter, more together, more conformist high school graduates apply to and start college. People who don't even try to go to college tend to be particularly academically dull, disorganized, or unwilling to consider living the "normal," "play by the rules" life that our society and economy rewards. And, people who go to college often end up falling in love and pairing off there, even if they don't graduate, and benefit from having a likewise more together significant other in their life. Indeed, while students who earn associate's degrees that typically are designed to develop a pre-professional skill set do earn more and are less often unemployed than plain old college dropouts, the gap is surprisingly narrow.
Similarly, one of the reasons that college graduates, even if they have no specialized skills of any value, do better in life, is that to do so, they must be reasonably literate, not atrociously innumerate, and have some measure of self-discipline and organization.
The trouble is that sending people to college only to have them flunk out in large numbers is a dreadfully expensive way to engage in sorting. Encouraging people to start something and fail is not a great way to build self-esteem or confidence, and certainly contributed to the current of anti-intellectualism in American life. It costs the students and their parents tens of thousands of dollars each. It costs alumni and governments that subsidize the process similar amounts. It builds cynicism in professors about their student's capabilities. And, while sometimes something worthwhile may rub off on the students, students who fail aren't taking nearly as many classes, tend to be getting the least out of the classes that they do finish, and may spend a lifetime avoiding anything similar because they have authoritatively been told that they are no good at the subjects that they studied.
It would be possible to have lifetime education classes that confer at least as much benefit over the lifetime of someone who doesn't go to college, as the classes that they do flunk out of in a year or so on campus that is a mix of frustration, confusion, and drunken stupor. If some other method of sorting gained credibility with employers and others, we might dispense with the cruel trick that a million or so young adults embark on each year of starting college when they will eventually fail, for many of them.
It doesn't have to be this way. There are many countries in the world where graduating from high school itself, perhaps with some distinction or extra credential attached, is enough of a hurdle that it does the sorting that our society accomplishes by preferring college dropouts to mere high school graduates. In those countries one can go on to run a small business, be a book keeper, be a middle manager, write for a newspaper, have a decent sales job, be a cop, or whatever, without any higher education. The people who do those middle class jobs have similar abilities to the people who do those middle class jobs in the United States, but simply haven't spent a year trying and failing at the task of being college students first.
Particularly in tight job markets, like the ones we see today, it is simply easier to insist on college degrees or at least time in college, for jobs that require nothing that a high school graduate in the top half of their class could have handled upon graduation.
While education can and often does impart real value to students, an insistence on educational credentials simply because it provides a means to sort people is a real waste.
The costs work their way back as well. The vast majority of high school students, including the 70% who will probably not graduate from college, receive watered down versions of the college preparatory curriculum that their peers who are sure to go to college and will probably graduate do. Yet, a college preparatory curriculum while very appropriate for preparing people to go to college, is not necessarily the best preparation that someone who will not go to college, or will go only for a year before dropping out, can have for life, given the scarce amount of full time formal education that they have left in their life.
Of course, the trouble is that any system does have winners and losers. Some percentage of students admitted to college who seemed sure to fail, will graduate. A surprisingly high percentage of students who at the time they are admitted to college seem sure to graduate, don't. The social class benefits that accrue to the long shot students, mostly poor and working class, who make it are powerful. Those who seemed likely to succeed and don't, tend to be middle class. As wasteful as our system seems, it creates the appearance of meting out social class justice with meritocracy and fits well with our national distrust of academic theory.
It is easy to say that someone with a 95% chance of dropping out of college would be better off doing something else. But, what if the chance is 80% or 65% or 50% or 35% or 10%? Where do you draw the line, and how?
Also, how should we mitigate harm? Should we expect people who have dropped out of college and not gotten the benefits that come with graduating, who have already endured the trauma of failing at that, pay back the full amount of their student loans?
Of course, much of this is a case of selective sampling. We don't see the additional hardship and anguish faced by those who went to college against the odds and flunked out. We don't see the benefits that might have accrued to those who went to work right out of high school. And, we have devoted stunning little effort to developing quality alternatives, other than military service, to a four year college education right out of high school. Associate's degree programs are underfunded. High schools lack effective career services offices. Apprenticeship programs are rare. Technical school programs for high school students are blighted with the perception that those who go have given up the better opportunities that are available to college graduates, even if those students probably wouldn't have attended or graduated from college.
Society and our political system won't accept alternatives, unless there is some sort of safety valve by which students who take anything other than the "top track" can get back onto it if they try. But, our educational system is a serious victim of "the best is the enemy of the good" paradox. There ought to be more alternatives that are credible and rigorous alternatives for less academically inclined that do not involve learning how to kill people.
As a postscript, it is also worth noting that math and science play a particularly large role in this saga. First semester calculus, chemistry and physics, are notorious for having some of the highest failure rates of any classes on almost any college campus. Students who start college needing remedial work overwhelmingly are behind in math, rather than reading or writing. While math and science are clearly worthwhile things, does an insistence on those classes being a part of everyone's education come at too high a human cost?