Graduation rates are still abysmal: What’s the expectation for open learning?

December 5, 2011 at 9:46 am 12 comments

I know that there are folks who believe that too many people go on to higher education, and we should be careful not to drop standards. When I look at stats like these, I see a failure of education as form of engineering.

When I was at Michigan in the School of Education in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, we talked about education as “psychology engineering”: that educators take findings from the science of psychology and use them to create a practical engineering for producing literate (in many senses) citizens. A graduation rate of less than 50% means that we are failing on more than 50% of our input — and our input are people, who want to be productive, who want to have good economic futures, who want to understand their world, society, and country. I was a first-generation college student, and I had no idea that the odds were so much against me. We need to find ways to improve these odds.

The Stanford on-line AI class had 200,000 sign up, but only 35,000 are finishing it. That’s a 82% drop-out rate. Is that a problem? Depends on your comparison set. 82% for a face-to-face class is horrible. How many people buy a book and never read it? How many people buy conference registration and never attend? How many people buy a ticket to a movie and don’t go? To which should we compare to open learning? In any case, if we really want to educate people with open learning approaches, we have to reach more than 18% of the those who said that they were interested in the first place.

Other findings in the report:

Only 32.9 percent of men earn a degree in four years, while the percentage for women is 43.8. The gap shrinks to 5.5 percentage points at the end of the sixth year.

First-generation college students earn a degree at the rate of 27.4 percent after four years, while students whose parents have college degrees have a graduation rate of 42.1 percent.

Asian American and white students had the highest four-year graduation rates, at 44.9 percent and 42.6 percent respectively.

Degree-attainment rates remain is the highest at private universities; the lowest numbers come from public four-year colleges.

via Report suggests approach to improving graduation rates | Inside Higher Ed.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  December 5, 2011 at 10:18 am

    “You can fix a clock, but you have to negotiate with a system”

    This removes a lot of engineering metaphors from reasonable conversations about education, both wrt to students (who are systems) and educational organizations (ditto).

    Given that universities are probably more lenient than they were 50 years ago (before pass-fail and grade inflation, desires for retention, etc.), these are interesting figures.

    But what do they mean? Bad prep in K-12? Intrinsic bell-curve limits? Lack of social and other factors in motivation and help? Disastrous costs that are hard to meet by so many? Poor processes within colleges and universities? Too many pop-culture intrusions of too many kinds? All of the above?

    Another interesting question concerns “the distances” between what is supposed to be learned in order to get a high school degree and what is supposed to be learned to get a college degree. Historically, with the exception of trade-schools, secondary education was supposed to be like college education, and the differences were more in scope than qualitative.

    If this is still deemed to be the case, then high schools are graduating many “without merit” — and this has been much discussed over the last few decades.

    The quote at the top also applies to the results of poor educational processes, and to me is very much like the health vs unhealth processes in the US. As a country we have fallen into the disastrous groove of letting ourselves get seriously unhealthy, and then try to “fix” our internal systems. This does not work well in health-care, and is extremely costly in the process — and I think the similar tendencies in education are even less amenable to “after the disease” rectifications.

  • 2. Stephen Downes  |  December 5, 2011 at 11:31 am

    There’s a huge difference between a drop-out rate for an online course offered for free to whomever signs up, and a university course that someone has paid tuition (and maybe given up a job) to attend. It’s disingenuous to compare the two.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  December 5, 2011 at 11:34 am

      Totally agreed that there’s a huge difference, and that they’re not directly comparable is exactly my point. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. What *should* we be comparing online course drop-out rates to? Is it like a book, or like a movie? We do want an educated populace. If open learning efforts might help with that goal, then it is reasonable to ask about the yield. What yield should we expect? What’s comparable?

      • 4. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  December 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm

        The yield needed should be based on the cost. That is, if it cost $100,000 to teach 35,000 students, the class was quite cheap, and the 165,000 who dabbled in it really don’t matter (they may even have learned a little—like that this approach to AI was not what they were looking for).

        Even if the Stanford course cost $1million, it was still a good value for money if 35,000 completed it. Of course, it is not clear how long Stanford will keep offering free courses.

        Completion percentages only matter to those who are paying for attempts to pass (parents, financial aid agencies, students, … ). What matters most in the long run is number of successful completions, not number of starts.

        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  December 6, 2011 at 11:29 am

          If the 35,000 students really did learn something, then it is wonderfully efficient. I’m a big fan of actually measuring the cost of education outcomes, and I do agree that the Stanford results are promising. I’d like to hear about outcomes, though. My first program director at NSF claimed that Engineering Education didn’t actually educate anyone — it simply filtered out those who couldn’t teach themselves. There are lots of ways to filter out 165,000 people without teaching anyone anything. Using Alan’s term, what’s “the distance” between what that 35K learned and what we need them to learn?

          But I’m looking at this from a different kind of cost. Only graduating 26% of first-generation college students in four years may be a great achievement. It is not acceptable if our society needs more graduates, and we actually need that percentage to be more like 75%.

          Here’s an analogy. Imagine I have a great way to teach reading that is really cheap. I take on 200 students. 35 of those students learn to read. I may have successfully taught those 35 students at low cost. Our society can handle some illiteracy, but not 82% illiteracy. We would likely agree that my cheap method of teaching reading isn’t effective enough. Maybe we need a different method for the other 165 students — we’d use the cheap method for some students, and another method for others. That’s a reasonable answer. We just need to know where my method works and where it doesn’t.

          That’s what I’m asking about open learning. Who does it work for? Is it effective enough? For whom isn’t it effective? Alan’s post also talked about the trade school path, as an alternative to college. Can we offer trade school offerings via open learning methods? Are they effective and efficient?

          • 6. Alan Kay  |  December 6, 2011 at 11:37 am

            Hi Mark

            Interesting argument! (The National Literacy Foundation some years ago did a deep survey and found that just about 80% of American adults could not “fully read” well enough to understand and deal with the ideas in Tom Paine’s “Common Sense”.)

            (Maybe US education decided to try your “cheap methods” already? And this is at the root of many of the other problems that are manifest?)

            And, not just with tongue in cheek, cognitively there is something to be said about the idea that people in the end have to teach themselves — good teachers might help with this process but they can’t replace it …)



            • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  December 6, 2011 at 11:55 am

              Hi Alan,
              You may very well be right — that the US has taken the “cheap” route. Agreed that, in the end, everyone has to cross the Zone of Proximal Development through their own cognitive effort. But a good teacher shrinks that gap.

              I just found that the CEO of Siemens is making a similar argument, about the need for greater STEM learning distribution. It’s not enough for only the scientist-and-engineer percentage to get it.


  • 8. Seth Chaiken  |  January 8, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Stephen Downes’ remark leads me to think about what are essential differences between free and tuition charged courses.

    I get the impression from my students having trouble in beginning CS major courses or abandoning the CS major that they don’t know what they are getting into. We see this in at least half of our transfer students, including both those with no CS or IT experiences before and those with 2-year degrees in IT.

    Popular descriptions and applications are really cool so the availability of a free AI course is attractive, but the enthusiasm wanes when the learner discovers that he or she must spend lots of time and expend patience for frustration to pass the lecture questions, assignments and exams. Students who pay tuition for advanced disciplinary courses mostly know what kind of intellectual content is presented and what kind of intellectual work is required for getting credit. Perhaps even professional programmers don’t realize that the AI course will require them to think in new ways to solve subtle problems of sorts they’ve never heard of.

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  January 9, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Seth, for transfer students particularly, do we know that “enthusiasm wanes” because “the learner discovers that he or she must spend lots of time…”? In our study of adult CS learners enrolled in an on-line course, we found that “enthusiasm waned” because of external factors in their lives, e.g., job changes or home/family issues. The course stayed the same level of time demand, but the external world changed, and the course wasn’t flexible enough to allow the learner the opportunity to restructure when the demands were met. Adults have more significant demands on them than 18-20 year olds.

      • 10. Seth Chaiken  |  January 9, 2012 at 12:47 pm

        Good point, Mark.

        However, redesign for flexibility must take into account that the same amount of time and intellectual effort must still be expended by the student for the same learning outcomes which the external world expects.

        (Of course, research leading to more efficient teaching practices is welcome! Maybe, also, “counseling” is needed to orient the adult learner to the need and practices of budgeting a small amount of time regularly for difficult intellectual effort. I see on the Codecademy website that “several hours” are needed for each lesson.)

        Students, instructors and administrators must expect and allow more time and flexibility on the calendar for the courses to be completed. Indeed, a shortcoming of Stanford’s AI course is that, like traditional courses, it served a cohort of interacting enrollees who had to keep to the calendar.

        I see the Stanford lectures with interactive questions remain available, and I’ve happily gone through one. It would be interesting to track how people use them, testing the hypothesis that well-designed self-paced online interactive learning resources enable busy people to effective learn valuable but difficult content.

        Some of our best transfer students are adults with responsibilities who pace themselves; and some of our worst are young 2-year college graduates.

        Hope you and everyone have good semesters this year!

  • […] graduation rates?  Really?  Retention rates tend to drop online.  While we don’t know how to interpret the low success rates in the Stanford classes, it’s clear that face-to-face classes have much higher retention […]

  • […] used in a distance education.  Here’s my prediction: Without the 1:1 help, I’d expect the distance folks to still have a higher WFD rate. No academic initiative has delivered more handsomely on the oft-stated promise of […]


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