Are American college students spending too much for too little? Quite possibly. Here are two publications on the topic.

First up is What Will They Learn, a booklet, website, and publication of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). It evaluates over 1,000 private and public colleges and universities, grading them on how well-rounded their graduates will be, based on course requirements laid out by the institutions. In the view of the report’s authors, the best college education is one that requires students to take at least one general-survey course in each of the following subjects: English composition; literature; foreign languages; U.S. government or history; economics; mathematics; and science. If a requirement can be met by an esoteric (“History of Landscape Architecture”) or “Mickey Mouse” course (“Arts and Crafts for Leisure”), it doesn’t count towards the institution’s report card.

Nationally, 29 percent of “four year” colleges and universities earned a D or F, meaning they required a general survey course in, at most, two of the seven subject areas that ACTA considers important for work and citizenship today. Compared with the rest of the nation, the colleges of baccalaureate-granting institutions in Minnesota was more compressed: Nobody got an A, but nobody an F, either. Nationally, 39 percent of institutions got an A or B; in Minnesota, 22 percent did. Nationally, 32 percent of institutions got a C; in Minnesota, 52 percent did. Nationally, 20 percent of institutions got a D; in Minnesota, 26 percent did.

Here is a summary of the report card for Minnesota institutions:

  • Augsburg College: D
  • Bemidji State University: C
  • Carleton College: B
  • College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University: D
  • Concordia College: C
  • Condordia University: B
  • Gustavus Adolphus College: C
  • Hamline University: D
  • Macalester College: C
  • Metropolitan State University: C
  • Minnesota State University, Mankato: C
  • Minnesota State University, Moorhead: C
  • Southwest Minnesota State University: D
  • St. Catherine University: C
  • St. Cloud State University: D
  • St. Mary’s University of Minnesota: B
  • St. Olaf College: B
  • U of Minn, Crookston: C
  • U of Minn, Duluth: C
  • U of Minn, Morris: D
  • U of Minn, Twin Cities: D
  • U of St. Thomas: B
  • Winona State University: C

The more detailed report card breaks down each college or university’s grade into the seven subject areas.┬áNationally, only 19 institutions earned an “A.” They were:

  • Baylor University [Texas]
  • California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo
  • City University of New York – Brooklyn College
  • Gardner-Webb University [North Carolina]
  • Kennesaw State University [Georgia]
  • Morehouse College [Georgia]
  • Pepperdine University [California]
  • St. John’s College [Maryland]
  • St. John’s College [New Mexico]
  • Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi
  • Thomas Aquinas College [California]
  • Thomas More College of Liberal Arts [New Hampshire]
  • United States Air Force Academy
  • United States Coast Guard Academy
  • United States Military Academy
  • University of Dallas
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma
  • University of Texas – San Antonio

Graduation rates

You know that there’s a problem with high school dropouts. Did you know that college students also drop out at significant rates? Here’s the information on the percentage of students who entered the institution in the Fall 2004 term, and graduated within six years.

  • Augsburg College: 60%
  • Bemidji State University: 50%
  • Carleton College: 93%
  • College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University: 79%/74%
  • Concordia College: 67%
  • Condordia University: 53%
  • Gustavus Adolphus College: 77%
  • Hamline University: 72%
  • Macalester College: 88%
  • Metropolitan State University: 26%
  • Minnesota State University, Mankato: 49%
  • Minnesota State University, Moorhead: 42%
  • Southwest Minnesota State University: 39%
  • St. Catherine University: 67%
  • St. Cloud State University: 47%
  • St. Mary’s University of Minnesota: 59%
  • St. Olaf College: 85%
  • U of Minn, Crookston: 37%
  • U of Minn, Duluth: 54%
  • U of Minn, Morris: 66%
  • U of Minn, Twin Cities: 70%
  • U of St. Thomas: 77%
  • Winona State University: 54%

Here’s a snapshot of institutions in Minnesota, grouped into quartiles by the percentage of first-year students who graduate within six years:

  • 75 percent or more: 6 (Carleton; St. Benedict/St. John’s; Gustavus Adolphus; Macalester; St. Olaf; St. Thomas)
  • 50 to 74 percent: 11 (Augsburg; Bemidji State; Concordia College; Concordia U; U of Minn, Duluth; Hamline; U of Minn, Morris; St. Catherine; St. Mary’s; U of Minn, Twin Cities; Winona State)
  • 25 to 49 percent: 6 (Crookston; Metro State; Mankato; Moorhead; SW Minnesota; St. Cloud)
  • 0 to 24 percent: none

Is “College for All” a good idea?

On a related note, many pundits and scholars have suggested in the last year or so that we have a “bubble” in higher education, driven in part by an unwise policy environment that pushes too many high school graduates into four-year programs. Sean Kershaw and Stacy Becker, both with the Citizens League, raised that point in a recent op-ed published by the Star-Tribune: College is not always the ticket to success.

They admit that people with a baccalaureate degree earn on average more than those who don’t–but then go on to say that the averages hide some very real and interesting numbers. “For example, one-quarter of workers with only some college or with associate’s degrees make more than do half of those with bachelor’s degrees.” [Emphasis added]

The authors can’t say much about solutions in a short piece. Instead, they offer this general approach: “Our responsibility as adults is to help students discover their passions and talents, identify a career path that makes the most of these passions and talents, comprehend what type of education and skills are necessary to success in such a career, and understand the future potential of that career in our economy.”

There are some possible clues within the piece. For example, it notes that┬ánew-and-improved technical and vocational education in high school can help. The authors also say that employers should focus “on the range of skills, knowledge and competency sets being acquired rather than credits and degrees.”

But college has become a screening device, a test for a person’s perseverance and ability to learn. Perhaps our economy would be better off with the expanded use of some sort of employment-based credentials, somewhat akin to the CPA.

When compared with K-12 education or health care, higher ed is a successful sector. Yet there’s plenty of room for improvement, to raise degree completion rates (if not raw numbers), increase affordability (by increasing the productivity of colleges rather than expanding the federal loan program), and decrease the amount of public money spent on studies of, say, the sex lives of left-handed, aboriginal underwater basket weavers. For more possibilities, see, 25 ideas from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.