Tuesday, August 31, 2010

College Dropout Factories

Steve points to a Washington Monthly article about one student’s experience at Chicago State:

It was money—or the lack of it—that determined where Nestor Curiel chose to go to college. The third of six children in an immigrant Mexican family, Nestor grew up in Blue Island, a gritty working-class suburb near Chicago’s South Side . . . .  Nestor, a polite twenty-one-year-old with black-rimmed glasses, graduated from Eisenhower High School with a 3.6 GPA and dreams of becoming an engineer. (As a child he was inspired by Discovery Channel documentaries about engineering marvels, and he also enjoyed helping his dad repair automobiles on weekends.) . . . .

Nestor was an above-average high school student who generally made the honors list, and he was diligent in his non-school hours as well, holding down a part-time job as a busboy and line cook at the restaurant where his father worked. His ACT score was 18, equivalent to about 870 on the SAT, which wasn’t high enough to gain him admission to a selective college.

I hate* to point this out, but money was the least of his worries.  Selective colleges happily subsidize poor minorities who show the least bit of potential.  But that 870 SAT score tells admissions committees that Nestor’s 3.6 GPA doesn’t mean what the Washington Monthly thinks it means.

And engineering?  The university at which I used to teach didn’t accept students with less than an 1100 SAT score.  (It might have been 1000 for athletes; I forget exactly.)  I taught some of those 1100 students our department’s core course they needed for a BS and watched as they struggled with even a non-calculus treatment of pretty basic concepts.  I would despair at the prospect of getting them through a full engineering curriculum, and they had SAT scores 200 points above Nestor’s.

While I admire people who know their way around the inside of an automobile engine (I do not), it’s not the same thing as engineering.  But so what?  Automobile mechanics make decent money:  my next door neighbor back West did automobile body work and managed to afford a house in our neighborhood.  So why not encourage students with 870 SAT scores to pursue lines of work suited to their abilities?

Only with the help of two dedicated instructors—Shuming Zheng, an engineering professor, and Thomas Kuhn, a physics lecturer—was Nestor able to finish his pre-engineering credits as planned. Fortunately, this allowed him to transfer to a superior school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a $5,000 scholarship.

Nestor is certain that the two years at Chicago State put him behind. In his first semester at UIC, he failed a math class, finding it difficult to match the faster pace and heavier workload. (He retook the class, however, and passed.)

Okay, first of all, if he’s still taking math, then he didn’t actually finish his pre-engineering credits.  And second, Nestor’s entire academic experience put him behind, not just his two years at Chicago State.

It’s easy to make fun of the Washington Monthly’s obtuse treatment, but the subject they address is an important one:  colleges like Chicago State take their students’ (usually borrowed) money while not even trying to give them anything close to a decent education.  As the article’s contrast with North Carolina Central University demonstrates, other colleges perform much better in ways that can’t seem to be accounted by demographic factors.  Here is Chicago State’s profile at CollegeResults.com, contrasted with NCCU’s profile.   NCCU doesn’t appear to be a diploma mill:  it’s salary data among actual graduates is on par with that of Chicago State.  But that said, NCCU’s graduation rate of 48% isn’t representative;  most schools in its tier have graduation rates in the 30s.

* I lied.  I love pointing this out.  That’s why I write a blog, dummy.


Professor Hale said...

I noticed the ACT score too. A 3.6 and honors from an underperforming high school means nothing. the test tells the real story. That is why universities depend on standardized tests to tell them the truth about your academic preparation.

The fact is that these "for profit" colleges and community colleges make their money by giving college credit for taking High school level courses. It is no wonder that when he transefers to a real college or university, he is behind.

trumwill said...

There are two HBCUs in my home state (fictitiously named "Delosa" - I avoid the pseudonyms on other people's blogs when I can but here it would be difficult), Delosa State and Delosa A&T. Despite the almost entirely minority student population, State is the dregs and A&T actually has a rather solid reputation for producing good engineers.

One significant difference between the two is that DSU is an independent university, not affiliated with any university system. Delosa A&T is part of a statewide system of universities with a good reputation. The result, I think, is that A&T is held to a standard not different from the other schools within its system while State can set its standards however it likes.

State is also the source of a lot of administrative drama involving indictments, protests led by Jesse Jackson, and the like. Meanwhile A&T has a system chancellor and BOR to report to. There was a push to move State into a university system, but the local black community strenuously objects and the university systems are less than entirely eager to take it on.

Notably, NCCU is part of the UNC system. Chicago State is, as near as I can tell, an independent university.

ironrailsironweights said...

Chicago State isn't an HBCU, although given its location there is a significant minority enrollment.


Professor Hale said...

My own experience with HBCs reliably informs me that they are fully funded 4 year parties that produce nothing. ROTC pays a lot of scholarships to HBCs. What we get are college graduates so deficient in basic HS level skills that the Infantry School at Fort Benning has to teach remedial English to its officers who come out of those programs.