America's worst colleges
The Washington Monthly, a tiny bastion of high-grade journalism in the nation's capital, tries every year to kill the celebratory buzz greeting the latest "America's Best Colleges" list from U.S. News & World Report. This time, the monthly has outdone itself with what might be called the anti-U.S. News list, 50 carefully ranked colleges that have to be worst nightmare of any student who aspires to deep learning and careful career preparation.
Here are the bottom 10, ranked by their six-year graduation rates, including one school not far from my home:
- Southern University at New Orleans, La. 4.98 perercent .
- Allen University, S.C. 6.09
- Martin University, Ind. 6.67
- Bellevue University, Neb. 6.99
- Calumet College of Saint Joseph, Ind. 7.14
- Baker College of Auburn Hills, Mich. 7.14
- Visible School--Music and Worships Arts College, Ind. 7.50
- University of the District of Columbia, D.C. 7.94
- Saint Augustine's College, N.C. 8.24
- Nyack College, N.Y. 7.94
The article accompanying the list, by Education Sector policy analyst Ben Miller and my former Washington Post colleague Phuong Ly, focuses on the 23rd ranked college on the list, Chicago State University (12.79 percent graduation rate) and a dissatisfied former student, Nestor Curiel:
"With its tree-lined campus and gleaming new steel and glass convocation center, 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."
Many people reading that will say: What do they expect? Such colleges admit mostly low-income students who lack the preparation to get into well-run colleges. It is hard to teach them. A low graduation rate comes with the territory.
Gotcha, says the monthly. Its springs a trap for such pessimists with a second list of eight colleges that have demographic characteristics nearly identical to Chicago State's, but graduation rates three or four times higher.
Chicago State has 5,211 students. Of them, 92.3 percent are black or Hispanic and 66.7 percent receive federal Pell Grants given to low-income students. They enter the college with an average high school grade point average of 2.83 and an average SAT of 850 on a 1600 point scale. Among the colleges with similar students but much better graduation rates are Albany State, Clark Atlanta and Savannah State in Georgia, North Carolina Central and Winston-Salem State in North Carolina, Jackson State and Alcorn State in Mississippi and Virginia State in Virginia.
North Carolina Central University, for instance, has 5,978 students, 87 percent of them black or Hispanic and 63.6 percent receiving Pell grants. In high school they had an average GPA of 2.85 and an average SAT of 845. But NCCU's six-year graduation rate is 47.9 percent. The difference, Miller and Ly say, is an administration devoted to helping, not frustrating, the students, particularly those newly arrived.
"Students entering NCCU are told from the start that they are expected to have a goal of graduating in four years. The University College keeps students together in groups and assigns them advisers who must approve all major academic decisions and meet with students frequently. NCCU students even sign a contract upon arriving, a document that lays out the goals of what they are going to accomplish. If they start to struggle, they sign an additional contract that commits them to even closer monitoring. Above all, what drives places like NCCU is a culture of experimentation and data collection. The administrators track students, and they track results. If something works, they keep doing it. If it doesn’t, they try something else."
The writers have interesting explanations for why the failings of colleges such as Chicago State, as well as the successes of colleges like NCCU, are so little known in our college-crazy country. Most of the people who run the country, as well as those of us who write articles about colleges, never got near such schools. Our high school counselors, if they knew anything about such schools, would be unwilling to mention them except to a few low-income kids who couldn't get in anywhere else.
This is in contrast to the attention we pay to K-12 schools with many low-income students. I visit and write about urban schools, particularly high schools, quite frequently. Yet even though I often drive past the University of the District of Columbia, I can't recall ever going inside. The Post's higher education reporters do a much better job covering that school, but those stories still don't get a lot of attention.
"The public’s blindness to mass failure in higher education is bolstered by chronological happenstance: students move from high school to college at the same time that they reach the legal age of majority," Miller and Ly say. "As a result, without much thought, we’ve applied a binary mindset to education: elementary and secondary students are children; if they fail, it’s the fault of the schools. College students are adults; if they fail, it’s the fault of the students. Of course, this makes little sense."
Changing a college such as UDC into a college like NCCU is likely to be even more difficult than raising the level of the urban high schools. But I am glad the monthly took the time and trouble to show that such institutions of higher education exist. Their futures are not as hopeless as their rock-bottom graduation rates might suggest.
| August 27, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: 50 colleges with the lowest graduation rates, Chicago State same demographics as NCCU, Washington Monthly list, but much worse results
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