STOP THE PRESSES! The college drop-out crises
When it comes to college, the central challenge for most Americans in the 21st century is notgoing; it's finishing. Thirty-five million Americans now have some college experience but no degree. More Americans than live in Texas, in other words, have spent enough time at college to glimpse the promised land—but not enough to reap the financial bounty. Some are worse off than if they'd never enrolled at all, carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt, not to mention the scar tissue of regret and self-doubt.
President Obama's recent proposal to have the federal government and states pay for two years of community college is elegantly simple, and would surely prompt more students to enroll. But community college is already close to free for most low-income students, and still only 4 percent of all community-college students earn a two-year degree in two years. (Yes, 4 percent.) Money is just part of the problem.
We like to think of college as a meritocracy, a place where only the dedicated and smart survive. But it seems to be something else. Between 1970 and 2012, the proportion of American 24-year-olds who came from affluent families and had a bachelor's degree rose from 40 percent to 73 percent—quite an enlightenment period for privileged kids. But over the same period, the proportion of American 24-year-olds who came from low-income families and had a bachelor's degree rose from 6 percent to just 8 percent. The country's uneven public-school systems cannot be blamed entirely for this state of affairs. Too many people come to college unprepared academically, it's true. But even those low-income students who outperform their affluent peers on tests are less likely to graduate from college.
Our class-based higher-education divide explains more about America's widening income gap than does any other single factor, according to Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Declining union membership, frayed social services, low minimum wages—none matters as much as the unequal distribution of college degrees and certificates. "Income inequality started increasing in 1983," Carnevale told me, "and 70 percent of that inequality is derived from differences in access to higher education. It is both a fountain of opportunity and a bastion of privilege. The problem has gotten worse and worse and worse."
Last summer, in an unusual attempt to reverse this trend in his own corner of the service economy, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, announced that his company would team up with Arizona State University, one of the nation's largest public universities, to help Starbucks employees finish college. As long as they worked 20 hours or more per week, any of the company's 135,000 employees in the United States would be eligible for the program. Those who'd already racked up at least two years' worth of credits would be fully reimbursed for the rest of their education. Those with fewer or no credits would receive a 22 percent tuition discount from Arizona State until they reached the full-reimbursement level. Without saying so, Schultz was acknowledging an awkward truth about working at Starbucks: no one wants to be a barista forever.
Schultz shared the news in a PR blitz that featured tear-jerker testimonials from grateful employees, a cameo by the U.S. secretary of education, and a visit to The Daily Show. He explained that employees could study any of the 40 majors offered online by Arizona State. They'd be held to the same standards as all of Arizona State's on-campus students, and their degrees would look identical. Most surprising, employees would be under no obligation to stay with Starbucks after finishing. "To build a great, enduring company that is so people-based, as Starbucks is," Schultz told me, "we have to bring our people along on this journey and demonstrate we are sharing the success."
Almost immediately, reporters criticized Schultz for exaggerating his beneficence. After all, the program was going to be relatively cheap for Starbucks, given the discount provided by Arizona State. Plus, only students at the junior or senior level would be fully reimbursed—and only after they'd earned 21 new credits, proving their commitment to college and company. All students would be required to apply for federal financial aid, so taxpayers would be covering some of the cost, too.
But those objections missed the purpose of the program, which, admittedly, Schultz had glossed over in his soaring rhetoric about creating "access to the American dream." The goal was not to print a pile of get-out-of-tuition-free coupons. It was something less expensive and possibly more important: to help more students finish what they'd started.
The most revolutionary part of the program had nothing to do with tuition and got far less media attention. In their announcement, Starbucks and Arizona State also committed themselves to providing all enrolled employees with individualized guidance—the kind of thing affluent American parents and elite universities provide for their students as a matter of course. Starbucks students would each be assigned an enrollment counselor, a financial-aid adviser, an academic adviser, and a "success coach"—a veritable pit crew of helpers. Like a growing number of innovative colleges around the country, Starbucks and Arizona State were promising to prioritize the needs of real-life students over the traditions of academia.
Starbucks and Arizona State granted The Atlantic exclusive access to the first semester's students, advisers, and detailed results. Despite all the hype, no one at either institution knew how many employees would sign up—or how they would fare once enrolled. Working students attending college online drop out at notoriously high rates, but if the experiment succeeded, it might suggest that college, designed differently, could still become the equalizer it was meant to be. "We're not trying to save the world," Arizona State's president, Michael Crow, told me. "We're trying to show that the world can be saved."
We assume that people drop out of college because of the cost. But that's only part of the explanation. Listen closely to former students, and you'll hear them tell stories about bureaucracies losing their paperwork, classes running out of spots, nonsensical tuition bills, and transcript offices that don't take credit cards. The customer service is atrocious.
Simply put, many Americans fail to finish college, because many colleges are not designed to be finished. They are designed to enroll students, yes. They are built to garner research funds and accrue status through rankings and the scholarly articles published by faculty. But those things have little to do with making sure students leave prepared to thrive in the modern economy.
Now, however, there is hope. Ever so slowly, it's getting harder for colleges to neglect their students' needs. That's partly because fewer students are enrolling: the economy is improving, and Americans have other options. The dip in demand means recruiting new students can be more expensive for colleges than keeping the ones they already have. Meanwhile, more colleges are facing embarrassing government and media scrutiny over their students' low graduation rates and high debt loads. For some schools, ensuring that more students stick around is becoming a matter of survival.
To help students find their way, the school has developed a tool called eAdvisor—a user-friendly system that provides guidance to all 66,000 undergraduates about which classes they must take to graduate on time, and then tracks their progress along the way. If a student falters by, for example, dropping a required class, eAdvisor automatically e-mails the student and his or her adviser. The system has had an immediate and impressive effect. In 2006, the year before the school began using eAdvisor, only 26 percent of on-campus students from families earning less than $50,000 a year graduated within four years. By 2009, that rate had gone up to 41 percent.
Across the country, dozens of colleges are starting to tap into their own data to find simple and sometimes inexpensive ways to keep their students. When officials at Georgia State University looked at their records, they found that a surprising number of students had quit because they'd owed the university small amounts of money for fees not covered by their loans. So the school started giving out micro-grants to help students who were on track to graduate but had run into minor cash-flow problems. During the past academic year, Georgia State gave out more than 2,000 of these grants, mostly to seniors. The average grant was just $900. Of the seniors who received money, 70 percent graduated successfully within two semesters. For seniors in similar financial straits whom the university did not have the budget to help, the graduation rate was less than 10 percent. So far, the initiative has more than paid for itself, since students who stay continue to pay tuition after getting the micro-grant.
But the most telling part of the story is how students reacted to this news. When the university's vice provost, Timothy M. Renick, and his colleagues first began making phone calls to offer the micro-grants, they expected shouts of joy. Instead, a handful of students hung up on them. "They thought it was a scam," Renick told me. It was a sobering glimpse of how students perceived the university and their place in it.
Renick and his team called the students back and convinced them that the grants were real. Over time, the most surprising benefit was the psychological one, Renick said. Many of Georgia State's minority students from low-income families had concluded that they were on their own in college. When they got the micro-grants, students told him, they felt that sense of isolation lift. "We've heard from students," Renick said, "that it makes them feel like someone is on their side, that we want them to succeed."
Unlike so many other education reforms, coaching has been shown to have significant, measurable effects on student results. In a 2011 study, two Stanford University researchers conducted a randomized, controlled study of the performance of 13,555 students in eight colleges of varying degrees of selectivity. One group of students received coaching from InsideTrack, and a second group did not. After six months, the students in the coached group were five percentage points more likely to still be enrolled. The effects lingered for at least a year after the coaching ended. Five percentage points might seem small, but compared with the results of other, more expensive efforts to increase retention, it is impressive. Other studies have found that every $1,000 increase in financial aid per student leads to about a three-percentage-point increase in retention; InsideTrack was charging schools $500 a semester and getting better results. When Arizona State started using the company to provide coaching for its online students, its semester-to-semester online retention rate rose seven percentage points, from 75 percent in the spring of 2011 to 82 percent in the spring of 2014.
Half a dozen other companies have reached out to Starbucks to learn more about the program. As the job market tightens, more companies may begin investing in a college education for their employees. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has vowed to rate colleges based on completion rates, cost, and graduates' earnings, despite widespread objections from colleges. (The first ratings are due from the Department of Education this summer.) "We want people to vote with their feet," Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, told me. "It's not just about your kids going to college; it's about going to the right colleges." He praised Arizona State and other colleges that focus on student services and results but also continually revisit their efforts in order to do better. "These kinds of best practices, these kinds of cultures, need to be the norm," he said. "It doesn't take a billion dollars, but it does take an entrepreneurial spirit and a real commitment."
The most interesting thing about reluctant education writer Amanda Ripley's latest piece (The Upwardly Mobile Barista) isn't that it's a big cover story in the new Atlantic magazine or that she -- or Starbucks or ASU -- have discovered the secret to getting millions of American workers through college at higher rates than the current dismal numbers -- but rather that the article shows just how difficult it's been and how many adjustments have been made since the program to give baristas and other workers encouragement to finish their degrees.
Though she give time and space to the program's aspirations and advocates (and perhaps a smidgen too much implicit enthusiasm for the effort for my cranky taste), Ripley details the repeated challenges and setbacks that the program has encountered (and the student/workers have experienced) along the way. The piece is critical of traditional colleges and universities who don't get enrolled students through to graduation, sure, but it doesn't shy away from how hard it has been so far to bring Starbucks' customer-oriented service mentality to even a small number of students.
Starbucks and Arizona State University are collaborating to help cafe workers get college degrees. Is this a model for helping more Americans reach the middle class?