Students of the Great Recession

The Great Depression did not have too many silver linings, but it did change the way Americans thought about education, clearly for the better. In 1930, only 30 percent of teenagers graduated from high school. By 1940, after a decade in which there often was nothing better to do than stay in school, the number had jumped to 50 percent. The Depression didn’t just make Americans tougher. It made them smarter.

In the years that followed, these newly skilled workers helped create an economic colossus. They were the factory workers, office clerks and managers who built up General Motors, U.S. Steel, R.C.A. and I.B.M. So when our own Great Recession began more than two years ago, it was reasonable to hope that something similar, if less extreme, might take place.

In a historical echo, the share of young adults in recent years who graduated from college happened to be about 30 percent. By any serious reckoning, that number was too low. The gap between the pay of college graduates and everyone else has grown sharply over the last three decades, reaching a new all-time high last year, which suggests that workers with a degree are too scarce a resource. There may indeed be a natural ceiling on how many college graduates a society should produce, but the United States does not appear close to it.

A deep recession has the potential to change that. It can keep people in school, or drive them back to school, in two main ways. First, it reduces the opportunity cost — to use the technical term — of attending college. When times are tough, you are less likely to be missing out on a good $20-an-hour job by being in class. Second, a recession can serve as a wake-up, as Cecilia Rouse, a Princeton economist on leave to work in the White House, puts it. Because job losses and reductions in hours tend to fall disproportionately on less-educated workers, a downturn reminds people of a degree’s value.

The good news is that this dynamic seems to be playing out once again. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the share of new high-school graduates enrolled in college rose to 70.1 percent last fall. That was up from 67.2 percent in 2007 and a new record. And an analysis by the Pew Research Center has found the increase happening overwhelmingly at community colleges, which tend to educate working-class and poor students, the very groups that have been left behind. Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pa., has dealt with the crush by holding classes in empty mall stores and church basements, according to the publication Community College Week. Fresno City College, in California, now has an enrollment of more than 25,000 students but just 3,000 parking spaces.

Yet this overcrowding also highlights the main reason to be skeptical that the current college surge will have anywhere near the impact of the Depression’s high-school surge: it is not at all clear that colleges will, or even can, do right by their new students.

Over the last few decades, the number of teenagers who enroll in college has actually been rising fairly steadily. But graduation rates have fallen. Less than a third of all students who enroll in community colleges with the intention of getting a two-year degree — a degree leading to jobs in nursing, auto repair, preschool education — ever do so at any college, statistics suggest. The United States still leads the world in getting students to start college, notes Lawrence Katz, co-author of a recent history of education. But we no longer lead in what really matters: educational attainment.

This problem — the college-dropout boom — has started to receive more attention lately. The Obama administration has announced that it considers college completion to be as important as college access. The education bill that was attached to health care reform included $2 billion for community colleges with promising pilot programs. It was much less money than the White House initially wanted, but it is still enough to make a difference. The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, has begun to consider two-year colleges as the linchpin to improving higher education. “We have to accept the fact that completion rates are far too low,” Melinda Gates told a gathering of community-college presidents last month. Gates implored them to be more innovative, and the foundation is spending $400 million to encourage such efforts.

College administrators and researchers admit they do not yet know exactly what works. The most important factor appears to be student preparation, which is mostly beyond a college’s control. But intensive remedial programs seem to make a difference. So does financial aid linked to academic performance. In Louisiana and West Virginia, students whose scholarships were tied to remaining on track for graduation have done better than their peers. Such programs have the added benefit — especially during a time of shrinking government budgets — of focusing aid on students with a good chance of becoming graduates. Finally, of course, there is the overall cost of college. The higher the cost, the fewer the students who graduate, research has shown.

One advantage for Depression-era teenagers was the tuition at their local high school: zero. College, on the other hand, will probably never be free in this country. If anything, the recent state budget cuts are making it more expensive. Yet college is no less important to the country’s economic future than high school was in 1930. So what is to be done?

In her recent speech, Gates spent a few minutes praising the impressive tenacity of the community-college students she has met. She described one who napped in his car between a night shift and a morning class and another who juggled caring for her infant son with studying chemistry. Unfortunately, not all students can manage to be so tenacious and creative. Even more to the point, perhaps, the rest of us have not been, either. The policy makers, administrators and even voters whose decisions shape today’s colleges have come to see a job half-done as an acceptable outcome. Until that changes, it is hard to see how the country will have another great education surge.


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