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Every spring for the past few years, as high school students graduate and prepare for college (or dont, if they attended one of the nations' many underperforming schools) and college students graduate to begin their first jobs (or cant, for a variety of reasons, some of which are outlined here), journalists take to newspapers and blogs to lament our nations declining four-year college graduation rates. This year at least three editorials graced the most emailed section of my New York Times app, titled Dropping Out of College, and Paying the Price, How to Help College Students Graduate, and Who Gets to Graduate.

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The last train home.

The Times has a point: a lot of 4-year college students aren't graduating in four years. At my relatively stereotypical, overpriced, liberal arts college, for example, one in every five seniors packed up early and went home the spring I graduated without staying for senior week and without walking down the aisle on graduation day. Several of my good friends actually did stay in their dorms for senior week (which was technically against the rules) and they spent graduation day together in a dorm-building attic, drinking and smoking as the rest of us received out diplomas.

Though you wouldn't have known it if you saw them that day, many of the diploma-less students dejectedly drinking and toking in that attic we're incredibly smart and motivated. At least one will almost certainly be famous someday, and several of them we're far better students than I ever was.

Yet, they weren't graduating with me, and I felt a pang of irritation when our Dean of Students proudly announced to the assembled graduates and their families: Fully eighty percent of our students graduated after only four years!

Eighty percent? Only four years? That means one in five students paid about a quarter of a gazillian dollars they probably didn't have for a degree they definitely didn't get. While I loved my college experience, that's not something to boast about. There is no excuse for that. When one in five of your students can't get the promised diploma in the promised four years, you, as a college administration, are doing something wrong. You have failed your students and betrayed their trust.

The Times and other papers have tried to figure out why so many students aren't graduating, and sometimes they get pretty close to the mark. They accurately point the blame, in many cases, at economic and social inequality, and the ways that colleges often cater to wealthy, white students, while leaving disadvantaged and minority students behind. But, there are several overlapping reasons for low graduation rates, and they are almost all the colleges faults.

1) Colleges often ignore student scheduling needs.

Every semester, when the time came to select courses for next semester, all of the chemistry, biology, and especially pre-med majors panicked. In order to graduate on time with their chosen major, they had to get in to the right classes in the right semester.If they didn't take the right Intro to (Whatever) course in the right year, or if they didn't pass the course, their majors we're ruined, because some courses we're requirements for certain majors, or we're pre-requisites for more advanced courses (which we're also requirements for those majors). And many of these courses we're only held once every two years, and had a four hour lab requirement, held once a week, which effectively prevented the student from taking any overlapping courses, but the student was required to take overlapping courses in order to complete a core curriculum The horrible fact was that the courses you lucked into, and whether you we're lucky enough to pass those courses, often determined whether you graduated with your chosen major, or even whether you graduated at all.

2) Some courses can be pretty much impossible to pass for some students, even if the students are smart and motivated.

At my college, a whole lot of students took Spanish for their language requirement. By my estimate, over fifty percent of them had taken Spanish before, and a lot we're native Spanish speakers. There was a proficiency test the school provided to weed out the Spanish speakers from the beginners, but for various reasons (including the ever present desire for an easy A) many fluent Spanish speakers would end up in the Intro to Spanish classes. As a result of this diversity in students innate proficiency, the poor, beleaguered Spanish professors had to attempt to find a balance in teaching styles somewhere between too-hard-for -Bob-the-Pennsylvanian and too-easy-for-Carlos-from-Mexico. Professors usually went somewhere in the middle, which meant that Carlos passed with an A minus and Bob had to retake the course twice.

Spanish, however, was far from the only unfair course. In fact, almost every course gave advantages to some students over others, and (except for the Spanish courses) it was often the wealthy, white, upper-class, privileged kids with the advantage. Poor kids had to work after-class work-study jobs that tanked their homework time, foreign kids had to learn new languages and idioms, and a lot of poor and minority kids just simply weren't used to certain hard-to-define affectations and behaviors of the white middle and upper class. Each of these situations presented unique difficulties for students; difficulties that we're often difficult to understand for professors who had never experienced that type of problem themselves.

3) Theres a whole lot of racism, homophobia, and sexual harassment on college campuses, and administrations often just want to sweep it under the rug.

Especially as more and more women and LGBTQ persons attend college, the failure of students and colleges to adjust their attitudes and policies towards rape and sexual assault hurts graduation rates.

It doesn't matter how thick skinned you may think you are, the negative social and psychological effects of sexual assault and harassment can be extremely damaging to anyone. The first time I saw the word faggot scrawled in red Sharpie across my dorm-room door, I wasnt worried. I am straight, and my roommate explained to me that a somewhat conservative, religious person or group on campus had decided, incorrectly, to label him a faggot. For whatever personal reasons, my roommate asked me not to make a big deal out of it, and I tried to respect his wishes. I did as he'd asked, and never brought it up with the administration, but from what I understand, the harassment continued after we no longer lived together. I believe one of the people involved was a residential advisor in our dorm, and on at least a few occasions, he filed made-up noise complaints about our room while we we're out at class.

The harassment was silly and juvenile, but it was remarkable that an administration at an allegedly progressive school could shrug so carelessly about it. Eventually, it would come to light that there had been several sexual assaults on campus, and that the rapists had not been disciplined or expelled.

4) One bad professor can ruin everything, and every college has a few terrible ones.

No matter how smart and motivated you are in life, a bad supervisor of any kind, from boss to teacher, can ruin your plans. They can fail you because they don't like you, or they can make you fail through their own sheer incompetence or laziness. And in college, one failed course can mean the difference between moving on, and staying stuck in place, unable to take more advanced courses or get the required number of credits per year.

Despite the problems that incompetent professors cause for their students, many colleges hire Teachers Assistants and graduate students to teach courses, even though they have less training and experience. Colleges also often hire visiting professors from other schools and other countries to teach for a single year only. Sometimes, possibly because they know their time at the school is limited, these professors don't put in the necessary effort to make sure their students succeed.

5) Colleges keep hiring useless, incompetent administrators who, unfortunately, aren't content with their inflated salaries, and eventually attempt to administrate at stuff, wreaking havoc wherever they go.

6) Academics sometimes take a back seat to sports and clubs.

The football payers bathroom (as students called it) was the single most foul place I could have imagined. Within a month of the football team moving in nearby, the six-stall, four-shower bathroom was so filled with bodily fluids, clumps of hair, beer, and garbage that it was simply cordoned off with garbage cans, and campus maintenance staff refused to go near it. Meanwhile, in another part of campus, it became a rite of passage for Frisbee team members to punch a hole in the drywall of their dorm, then drunkenly vomit into the hole. And my school wasnt nearly as crazy about sports as a lot of colleges.

I highly value athletics, and participated in intramural sports myself when I was in college. But, serious athletes often struggle to balance academics and practice, and sports teams can tend to behave like fraternities. Colleges crave the revenue and recognition that successful teams bring, but they seem to be diverting more and more resources towards their athletes, and seem to be allowing athletes to get away with more and more inappropriate behavior (including, sometimes, sexual assault). The result is that negative campus sports cultures negatively impact not only student athletes, but the student body and the academic rigor of the institution as a whole.

7) Colleges often cant, or dont, do anything to combat social and economic inequality, even though social class is one of the main predictors of graduation success. Students from diverse backgrounds often attend the same colleges, and many, especially the poorest, don't receive the same guidance and resources as their wealthy counterparts.

Poverty, health issues, and family problems can place an enormous burden on students, and this burden is often hidden from view. One student I know found out that her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, her father had lost his job, and she would not be able to attend the college the next semester. Naturally, she was late on some homework assignments while she tried to deal with her horrifying family situation. Though she emailed her professors to explain that she might be late on some assignments because of a family emergency, a professor made her stand up in front of the entire class, and loudly announced that she must be immature for not being able to get her homework in at the same time as the other students.

In fact, the student was one of the most hardworking and mature adults I have ever met, but her professor was incapable of comprehending that not every student has the same level of privilege or faces the same challenges. In a previous post, I wrote about the awful experience of dealing with useless campus administrators, and I mentioned having an ADHD diagnosis. Such diagnoses are common among my generation, and many wealthy students received special accommodations for their (often slightly bullshit) medical problems. Among the accommodations wealthy students received was a single occupancy, distraction free dorm room for those with attention problems. Despite qualifying for this room myself, I could not afford the various requirements, such as hiring a psychiatrist to mail a note to the college.

While this particular accommodational discrepancy wasn't really a problem for me, studies show that wealthy, upper class students are able to graduate on time at far higher rates than their poorer counterparts, and I think it's likely that all of the perks and accommodations accumulated by wealthy students ultimately gives them a significant advantage over poorer students.

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Posted in Business Post Date 09/04/2019






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