November 22, 2017

Dropout Factories | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

A look at the ugly side of higher education

Steven_Bell(Original Import)

When the U.S. News & World Report rankings are published, as they were a few weeks ago, our nation focuses on the great universities of our nation. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and others are a testament to the high quality of America’s system of higher education.

The U.S. News release also distracts us from those institutions that would top a bizarro version of the rankings, such as the ones with incredibly high dropout rates. They present a side of higher education that is invisible to most of us. When we are exposed to it, it can be shocking and appalling. That’s the reaction most of us will have in reading an article that accompanied college rankings by the Washington Monthly.

Harvard and Princeton typically control the top two slots over at U.S News, but the Washington Monthly puts Harvard at seven and Princeton at 24. Not all that different you might say, but the ranking criteria are indeed different. The Washington Monthly bases its rankings on how much social good each institution and its students generate. These rankings incorporate factors such as Peace Corps participation and hours students spend doing community service projects. If, like me, you are no fan of college rankings, those produced by the Washington Monthly are somewhat easier to take. I somehow doubt, however, that students and their parents will take up the Monthly‘s ranking when they begin their college research.

No point in ranking this college
What about the colleges and universities that are toxic for the students who attend them? Who is paying attention to what happens at those institutions? Accrediting agencies are supposed to ensure that higher education institutions are of sufficient quality, but apparently it doesn’t always work and some, perhaps too many, persist despite numerous flaws.

This is illustrated in “College Dropout Factories,” a feature article that accompanied the Washington Monthly rankings. There we follow the trials and tribulations of Nestor Curiel as he makes his way through Chicago State University (CSU). Curiel is the first person in his family to apply to college, and while he’s a decent student he lacks the grades and entrance exam scores to make it into a more selective institution. Uncomfortable with living away from home, he settles on CSU. Early on, Curiel questions his choice:

Chicago State certainly looked impressive. But within his first month there, Nestor wanted to leave. Advisers in the engineering department seemed clueless about guiding him to the right courses, insisting that if he wanted to take programming he first needed to enroll in a computer class that showed students how to turn on a monitor and operate a mouse. (Nestor required no such training.) The library boasted a robot that retrieved books, but Nestor would have preferred that it simply stay open past eight p.m., since class sometimes ended at nine p.m. or later, leaving him without a useful place to study or do research before going home. Trash littered the classrooms and grounds, and during class many of the students would simply carry on conversations among themselves and ignore the instructors—or even talk back to them. Nestor was appalled. “It was like high school, but I was paying for it,” he says.

Most likely to fail
Despite the many barriers he encounters, and with the help of some dedicated faculty, Nestor survives two years at CSU and then transfers to, and initially struggles at, the University of Illinois at Chicago. The article argues that an institution like CSU, for many reasons, is more likely to take a student’s money and in return offer an environment that nearly guarantees a student will fail rather than succeed. “Chicago State has the worst graduation rate of any public four-year university in Illinois and one of the worst in the nation, with just 13 percent of students finishing in six years,” the article states.

Not surprisingly, CSU and many of the hundreds of other low performing colleges like it specialize in recruiting minority students from low-income families, many who attend part time. But as the article demonstrates, it’s not about the students, because other colleges with similar populations have far better graduation rates. In a climate of mismanagement, lack of caring, and skeletal student support, these “dropout factories” earn their reputation with shockingly low graduation rates.

What’s the fix for something so broken?
What can be done to turn around all the dropout factories. The article offers some recommendations, some which require basic improvements at the institutions and others that are more systemic, such as doing more to shed light on this much ignored serious problem in the higher education industry. How likely is it that a car manufacturer whose product was designed to fall apart and crash would escape national scrutiny?

As an academic librarian I have to wonder how effectively the libraries at dropout factories function. Our profession is focused on best practices and showcasing the accomplishments of trend setters and edge cutters, but perhaps we have a responsibility to look down as well. I ask if we should be doing more to learn about the libraries at institutions such as CSU, and what they are doing to support their students and faculty. If they perform as badly as their parent institutions, and I’m not suggesting they do—the academic libraries at dropout factories may be the shining star in an otherwise dismal setting—there must be more our academic library community could do to help.

In his Chronicle blog, Kevin Carey makes the point that we don’t need more research studies on how to improve retention and graduation rates. In this case just following best practices, or even “minimally competent” practices would create improvement. The primary barrier, says Carey, is that the problem gets swept under the rug where it can be safely ignored. Just acknowledging these badly mismanaged and poorly performing institutions would open up new possibilities for turning them around-or, potentially, shutting them down.


Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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