Cascading Failures

David Leonhardt has some stern words for the United States’ public universities:

If you were going to come up with a list of organizations whose failures had done the most damage to the American economy in recent years, you’d probably have to start with the Wall Street firms and regulatory agencies that brought us the financial crisis. From there, you might move on to Wall Street’s fellow bailout recipients in Detroit, the once-Big Three.

But I would suggest that the list should also include a less obvious nominee: public universities.

At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world. Yet in terms of its core mission — turning teenagers into educated college graduates — much of the system is simply failing.

Only 33 percent of the freshmen who enter the University of Massachusetts, Boston, graduate within six years. Less than 41 percent graduate from the University of Montana, and 44 percent from the University of New Mexico. The economist Mark Schneider refers to colleges with such dropout rates as “failure factories,” and they are the norm.

The United States does a good job enrolling teenagers in college, but only half of students who enroll end up with a bachelor’s degree. Among rich countries, only Italy is worse. That’s a big reason inequality has soared, and productivity growth has slowed. Economic growth in this decade was on pace to be slower than in any decade since World War II—even before the financial crisis started.

This is not a line of argument you hear much—that low college graduation rates are bad for the country—and I’m wondering why not.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.