College Dropout Factories


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. His father worked, and still works, two jobs—machine operator and restaurant dishwasher—and his mother makes and sells crocheted gifts. 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.) He particularly wanted to help his parents pay off the mortgage on their weathered gray house, which is two doors down from a corner store with a large “WE ACCEPT WIC” sign in the window.

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. (This was typical for his school—41 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black—where only 31 percent of kids meet or exceed standards on state tests, versus 76 percent for the state.) And, apart from a career fair, Eisenhower High School didn’t provide much in the way of college guidance. One time, a guest speaker had urged students to expand their horizons and apply to schools out of state, but Nestor worried about going somewhere unfamiliar. Also, if he could live at home, he would save money.

Ultimately, Nestor wound up narrowing his choices down to two nearby schools: Purdue University Calumet and Chicago State University. Each seemed to have advantages and disadvantages, but Chicago State offered one extra perk: $1,000 in scholarship money if Nestor enrolled in its pre-engineering program. That sealed the deal. The stipend, combined with federal and state grants and a private scholarship from Chicago’s George M. Pullman Educational Foundation, meant that Nestor could get a college education with most of his expenses paid.

With its tree-lined campus and gleaming new steel and glass convocation center, Chicago State certainly looked impressive. But within his first month there, Nestor wanted to leave. Advisers in the engineering department seemed clueless about guiding him to the right courses, insisting that if he wanted to take programming he first needed to enroll in a computer class that showed students how to turn on a monitor and operate a mouse. (Nestor required no such training.) The library boasted a robot that retrieved books, but Nestor would have preferred that it simply stay open past eight p.m., since class sometimes ended at nine p.m. or later, leaving him without a useful place to study or do research before going home. Trash littered the classrooms and grounds, and during class many of the students would simply carry on conversations among themselves and ignore the instructors—or even talk back to them. Nestor was appalled. “It was like high school, but I was paying for it,” he says.

Several students he knew dropped out, but Nestor stayed. “I wasn’t going to give them my money and let them kick me out,” he says. For the next two years, Nestor encountered a ceaseless array of impediments to getting through school. When he wanted to get a tutor, his advisers couldn’t offer any advice about who might be available. When he visited the financial aid office to clear up what seemed like a simple clerical error depriving him of a state grant, the office told him—untruthfully, as it turned out—that getting such grant money would disqualify him from getting any scholarship money from the Pullman Foundation. (By the time the situation was straightened out, the first semester of his sophomore year was nearly over, and the financial office gave Nestor only $780 of what was supposed to be a $1,200 grant, telling him that it couldn’t give him money for a semester that was ending. “It kind of felt like they were stealing from me,” he says.) 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.

UIC, adjacent to the city’s downtown, is just fifteen miles north of Chicago State, but felt like a world away. Nestor marveled over the smoothness of the operation. At Chicago State, he had been forced to work hard to find help. At UIC, on the first day of each of his classes, professors provided lists of tutors. Chicago State had offered no meaningful job assistance. At UIC, the engineering department was sending out regular e-mails about internships and other opportunities.

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.) It’ll take him five years, rather than four, to get his degree. But he says he feels invigorated by the challenges. “It’s hard, but it feels like everybody’s trying to help you,” he says. “You didn’t get that sense at Chicago State.”

As it happens, Nestor’s impressions are supported by hard numbers. Chicago State has the worst graduation rate of any public four-year university in Illinois and one of the worst in the nation, with just 13 percent of students finishing in six years. For stronger students like Nestor, the statistics are only somewhat better than that. According to a study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR), which looked at twenty different colleges in the Chicago area, kids who graduate from a Chicago public high school with a grade point average of 3.5 have a 37 percent chance of graduating from Chicago State. Those with the same grades who attend UIC have a much better chance of graduating—56 percent. And for those with a 3.5 GPA who attend Northwestern, just north in Evanston, the completion rate is 89 percent. Even schools all around the country with student profiles as challenging as that of Chicago State—that is, schools with mostly African American and Latino students from low-income backgrounds—have overall graduation rates that are many times higher.

Nestor’s experience of educational incompetence at the college level isn’t just a Chicago phenomenon. Nationwide, low-income minority students are disproportionately steered toward colleges not where they’re most likely to succeed, but where they’re most likely to fail.

School reformers, including President Obama, often talk about high school “dropout factories.” These are the roughly 2,000 public high schools, about 15 percent of the total, with the nation’s highest dropout rates. The average student at these schools has about a fifty-fifty chance of graduating, according to the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. But the term “dropout factory” is also applicable to colleges. The Washington Monthly and Education Sector, an independent think tank, looked at the 15 percent of colleges and universities with the worst graduation records—about 200 schools in all—and found that the graduation rate at these schools is 26 percent. (See the table at left for a listing of the fifty colleges and universities with the worst graduation rates.) America’s “college dropout factories,” in other words, are twice as bad at graduating their students as the worst high schools are at graduating theirs.

Nearly everyone considers it scandalous when poor kids are shunted into lousy high schools with low graduation rates, and we have no problem naming and shaming those schools. Bad primary and secondary schools are frequently the subject of front-page newspaper investigations and the backdrop for speeches by reformist mayors and school district chiefs. But bad colleges are spared such scrutiny. This indifference is inexcusable now that a postsecondary credential has become virtually indispensable to anyone hoping to lead a middle-class life. If we want better outcomes in higher education, we need to hold dropout factories like Chicago State accountable in the same way the Obama administration proposes to hold underperforming high schools accountable: transform them—or shut them down.

When one examines the schools on the list of college dropout factories—the worst being Southern University at New Orleans, with a 5 percent graduation rate—one thing that stands out is their diversity. Geographically, they are all over the map. From New York to Florida to Alaska—few regions of the United States are spared a local dropout factory. Some, like Chicago State, the University of the District of Columbia, and Houston’s Texas Southern University, are located in big cities; others, like Sul Ross State University and Heritage University, are in small towns and rural areas. Nor is there a bias toward public or private institutions: it’s split fairly evenly, although the public colleges, which are generally bigger, tend to account for greater numbers of dropouts. Some are heavily weighted toward certain minority groups—historically black colleges, for instance, and tribal colleges. Others, like Idaho State, are 80 percent white and do just as poorly. Some of the schools are religious—like Jarvis Christian College, with a 90 percent attrition rate. Most are just seemingly ordinary schools that mostly fly beneath the radar of the national press.

But there are also similarities. As a percentage of their student bodies, these college dropout factories enroll twice as many part-time students, nearly twice as many from low-income families, and around 50 percent more blacks and Hispanics than the average American college or university. They mainly serve local communities, admit most of their applicants, and have much less money than colleges that are higher in prestige. Most upper-middle-class parents would never send their kids to these schools—nor have they generally even heard of them. Not surprisingly, the worst of the dropout factories are allowed to roll along in dysfunction, year after year.

The school that would later become Chicago State was founded in September 1867 and called the Cook County Normal School—“Normal” referring to schools that prepare teachers for the classroom. For a century or so, it fulfilled this teacher-training role reasonably well. But in 1965 the school was acquired by the state of Illinois, soon renamed Chicago State, and converted into a standard four-year institution. In 1972, Chicago State moved to a newly built $95 million campus that could accommodate an additional 10,000 students. Most of them would be drawn from the city’s poor and working-class South Side and nearby suburbs. It was an admirable attempt to open new doors to a demographic that had been largely shut out of higher education. But it wasn’t long before signs of neglect and mismanagement were obvious. Passage rates on an elementary education teacher licensure exam, for instance, plummeted from 82 percent in 1968 to 42 percent in 1973, and the school almost lost its teacher accreditation.

One year later, in 1974, a devastating series on Chicago State appeared in the Chicago Defender, the city’s premier black newspaper. Under the heading “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Read,” the articles blasted the school, calling it a “diploma mill, with little quality control or concern about the product,” and noted “oppressively low” morale among students. Chicago State is a “ripoff institution,” it said, “a place where a comfortable white administration and faculty is providing a second-rate education for black students.”

Benjamin Alexander, the university’s first black president, arrived as a reformer in the 1970s. He made some significant improvements, but the progress largely evaporated after he left in the 1980s. Another reformer came in the 1990s and then was likewise gone. This would become a familiar pattern: temporary reform followed by familiar fecklessness. No improvements ever seemed to stick. In 2008, Chicago State’s President Elnora Daniel resigned under pressure after the school suffered yet another severe bout of mismanagement. A state audit found that even as the university suffered budget cuts, Daniel and other employees had spent lavishly on meals, alcohol, and first-class airfare. Daniel had brought five relatives and a university administrator with her on a nine-day Caribbean cruise for a “leadership conference.” Lax financial oversight allegedly resulted in the university paying more than a quarter of a million dollars for two photocopiers purchased from a company owned by a university employee.

Meanwhile, students contended with broken elevators, dirty classrooms, and ill-equipped labs. As enrollment declined, so did graduation rates. Of the first-time, full-time freshmen who started in 1996, about 18 percent graduated within six years. The graduation rate dropped to 13 percent in 2008.

Last year, the school’s board of trustees picked a new president, Wayne Watson, who has vowed to boost the school’s graduation rate through such reforms as a new electronic “early alert” system to track student attendance and class performance. But he cautions against expecting too much from Chicago State, given the kind of students that go there. “I serve a lower economic quartile,” he says. “So they’re going to drop out because their baby’s sick, because they don’t have money, because they’re trying to survive.”

Certainly, Chicago State enrolls a large share of academically underprepared students compared to more selective schools such as UIC or Northwestern, so its graduation rate might be expected to be lower. But the idea that Chicago State is doing the best it can with the kind of students it serves is belied by ample countervailing evidence. As the chart below shows, there are more than half a dozen schools in the United States with student bodies that are remarkably similar to that of Chicago State in every important respect—from race to test scores to family income—but whose graduation rates are at least double, and in some cases more than triple, the graduation rate of Chicago State.

Take North Carolina Central University, which enrolls 8,500 students. About 85 percent of students at both schools are black. NCCU’s median SAT score is 840, the approximate equivalent of about 17 on the ACT, even lower than Chicago State’s average ACT of 18. The difference, however, is that NCCU tries to work with the students it has. The result: while Chicago State graduates about 13 percent of its students, NCCU graduates about 50 percent. “We have the philosophy that if we admit the students into this institution we have a great responsibility in ensuring their success,” says Bernice Duffy Johnson, dean of the school’s University College, which focuses on supporting students during their first two years.

Students entering NCCU are told from the start that they are expected to have a goal of graduating in four years. The University College keeps students together in groups and assigns them advisers who must approve all major academic decisions and meet with students frequently. NCCU students even sign a contract upon arriving, a document that lays out the goals of what they are going to accomplish. If they start to struggle, they sign an additional contract that commits them to even closer monitoring. Above all, what drives places like NCCU is a culture of experimentation and data collection. The administrators track students, and they track results. If something works, they keep doing it. If it doesn’t, they try something else.

Other schools similar to Chicago State in their profiles are likewise similar in their pursuit of improved student outcomes. Jackson State University in Mississippi—95 percent black, 65 percent Pell Grant, 43 percent graduation rate—divides incoming students into small groups based on their expected majors and has a required first-year course to help ease the college transition. Faculty can immediately identify struggling students through an online tracking system. The university contracts for extra tutoring in addition to what’s already available on campus. It also gathers as much data about students as it can find, using surveys of student engagement and an exam developed by the University of Missouri that tests students before and after their general education courses. “If you don’t put in place strategies and interventions to retain the students throughout the four, five, six years of matriculation then you are not meeting the mandate that has been set, and that is to graduate a larger number of students,” says Evelyn J. Leggette, Jackson State’s dean of undergraduate studies.

Such examples suggest that the stratospheric rates of failure in college dropout factories are hardly inevitable and that blaming the students has become the last refuge of the bungler. As Melissa Roderick, lead author of the Consortium on Chicago School Research report, asks, “How could a child who gets a 4.0 in an urban school system and has high performance in an urban school system and has managed our environment and overcome their poverty, overcome their race, suddenly become a different person in three months who can no longer perform?”

It’s important to note that most students who drop out of college don’t fail out of college. They leave because they don’t perceive that the educational benefit of college exceeds the substantial expense of time and money—especially not when it’s coupled with indifferent bureaucracies that pride themselves more on inane complexities than actually helping students. But when students are given high expectations and good teaching to match, they succeed academically. And when they succeed they’re more likely to keep succeeding and eventually earn a degree.

The worst colleges also tend to plead ignorance as to how to get better. But the strategies employed by colleges that successfully graduate at-risk students aren’t particularly groundbreaking. Researchers have been documenting effective methods of preventing dropouts for decades. Most are commonsensical: pay attention to students, and give them the support they need. When Chicago State couldn’t give Nestor advice about tutors, it wasn’t failing to use “best practices.” It was failing to be minimally competent. Nor do college presidents need research to tell them it’s a bad idea to squander student tuition dollars on cruises and booze.

Why, then, has the nation tolerated this kind of catastrophic failure, one that has destroyed the college dreams of millions of disadvantaged students, for so long? The answer begins with the fact that most of us don’t know there’s a problem. The world is run by college graduates, most of whom are products of the middle class. They didn’t attend dropout factories, nor are they likely to know anyone who did. People naturally generalize from their own experience, and most public leaders simply have no idea that so many college students fail where they succeeded.

Another reason why we have accepted extremely high dropout rates at some colleges—and, frankly, unimpressive graduation rates throughout much of higher education—is that we lack a broadly shared sense of what an acceptable graduation rate would be. Pretty much everyone agrees that all children need a high school diploma. That’s why high school dropout factories are condemned without question. College, by contrast, isn’t for everyone. So it’s easy to see college dropouts as people who didn’t get what they probably didn’t deserve.

But while some people don’t, in fact, need college, most do. Forty years ago, the majority of high school graduates went no further with their education. Today, three-quarters of high school graduates go after a college degree, because they know that a career with a middle-class wage almost always requires one.

Similarly, just as some people shouldn’t go to college, some people who go shouldn’t graduate. Colleges have an obligation to maintain academic standards, and the slothful are rightly denied degrees. But there is a huge difference between “not everyone graduates” and “hardly anyone graduates”—the latter being the norm at schools like Chicago State. Of the millions of new students who stream into colleges as freshmen every year, barely half will graduate on time. Many won’t graduate at all. According to the census, nearly 34 million Americans over the age of twenty-five list their highest level of education as “some college, no degree.” And there is little or no evidence that they fell short because colleges are rigidly enforcing standards. Quite the opposite: the colleges that successfully graduate low-income and minority students don’t ask less of them. They ask more. Researchers have found that more challenging coursework makes success rates go up, not down.

The public’s blindness to mass failure in higher education is bolstered by chronological happenstance: students move from high school to college at the same time that they reach the legal age of majority. As a result, without much thought, we’ve applied a binary mindset to education: elementary and secondary students are children; if they fail, it’s the fault of the schools. College students are adults; if they fail, it’s the fault of the students.

Of course, this makes little sense. College students don’t become entirely different people in the three months that pass between walking off the high school graduation stage and moving into the freshman dorm. To be sure, the proper balance of responsibility between student and school moves toward students over time. But the burden shouldn’t lurch suddenly and completely onto students between the twelfth and thirteenth grades. Good colleges understand this and take it into account. That’s why the data on colleges show such a correlation between extensive student support, especially during the freshman and sophomore years, and high graduation rates. Yet the blame-the-student mindset persists all the same.

This sort of indifference sets the stage for dismal institutions like Chicago State to prey on underserved communities, not just for years but for decades, without anyone really noticing. When a prestigious school such as the flagship University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign turns out to be making politically influenced admissions decisions, it’s national news. (When such reports surfaced, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn immediately stepped in and forced seven of the school’s nine trustees to resign.) When a dropout factory like Chicago State turns in a 13 percent graduation rate, it’s business as usual.

It’s not just the public that’s uninvolved. While public universities are in theory overseen by a combination of state officials and voluntary accrediting bodies, none of them use their power in a manner that’s genuinely ameliorative. Low graduation rates will never cause a loss of accreditation. The fifty dropout factories listed on page 22—some of which have graduation rates in the single digits—are all accredited and advertise that fact prominently on their Web sites. Even when accreditors do pay attention to problems at a school, they tend to be slow and secretive in revealing their findings. Chicago State’s accreditor expressed “serious concern” about the school as far back as 2003, but this was never publicized. Not even the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which monitors Chicago State, knew about it. Only in 2009, when the Chicago Tribune published damning excerpts from a leaked confidential letter from the accreditor to the university, did more than a few parties know that Chicago State might be in trouble.

As for helping your students earn degrees, why bother? State appropriations systems and federal financial aid are based on enrollment: as long as students keep coming, the money keeps flowing. And since the total number of college students increased from 7.4 million in 1984 to 10.8 million in 2009, colleges have many students to waste. “It’s like trench warfare in World War I,” says Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor. “You blow the whistle, and they come out of the trenches, and they get mowed down, but there are always more troops coming over. It’s very easy to get new troops. If 85 percent of them don’t finish, there’s another 85 percent of them that can come in to take their place.”

That’s not the only problem with how funding for higher education is designed. It’s not uncommon for flagship research universities that enroll a disproportionate number of smart, well-off students to receive double the per-student funding allotted to regional universities and former normal schools like Chicago State. In K-12 education, that kind of misallocation often results in multibillion-dollar legal judgments against the state. In higher education, it’s called “meritocracy.”

In such a climate, there’s very little profit in mending one’s ways. After all, you can’t get credit for solving a problem people don’t think exists. Nearly everyone has heard of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, and her battle with the education bureaucracy of Washington, D.C. Who has heard of Charlie Nelms, chancellor of North Carolina Central University? Similarly, many people have heard of the last two Chicago school superintendents: Paul Vallas, who went on to run for governor, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Who has heard of the president of Jackson State, Leslie McLemore? College presidents don’t become rich and famous by turning around Chicago State. They make their careers by never working for Chicago State in the first place.

While big-city mayors like Richard Daley and Michael Bloomberg like to focus on fixing K-12 education, few bother to go after any of the moribund public universities that students who survive the K-12 system often attend. Fortunately, some public figures are starting to see things differently. When Secretary Duncan was asked about the college graduation problem at a public event recently, he proposed that high school guidance counselors actively discourage students from enrolling in colleges that persistently fail. Melissa Roderick, the lead author of the CSSR report about Chicago public school students’ college graduation rates, notes that some high schools are banning certain universities from their college fairs because it’s understood that the colleges will not serve their students well.

But it’s not enough just to tell high school students, “Buyer beware.” In other areas of the economy, consumers rightly expect government to protect them from grossly defective products. Governors and state legislatures should do the same, in part by tying a significant portion of state funding to graduation rate goals. Accreditors, for their part, could make their evaluations public and link graduation rates to accreditation. That could go hand in hand with intensified scrutiny of academic standards, to ensure that colleges don’t react to graduation rate pressure by turning into diploma mills.

But we won’t make real headway on the college graduation problem until two even more fundamental steps are taken. The first is acknowledging that colleges share responsibility for graduation with their students. Without that, governors, mayors, accreditors, and secretaries of education won’t be willing to expend scarce political capital on behalf of students like Nestor. The second is a willingness to broach a heretofore-forbidden topic in higher education: shutting the worst institutions down.

On the surface, a peaceful university campus can seem like a vital asset to the community. But a university with an 87 percent dropout rate is a service to no one. And chronically dysfunctional organizations can be very difficult to change. There is no reason that states can’t quickly build newer, better, more cost-effective public universities to educate people who are currently stuck in college dropout factories. No university, regardless of historical legacies or sunk cost, is worth the price being exacted from thousands of students who leave in despair. The sooner we acknowledge that, the better off those students—and the rest of us—will be.

Ben Miller and Phuong Ly

Ben Miller and Phuong Ly collaborated on this article. Miller is a policy analyst at Education Sector. Ly is a journalist who writes frequently on education and immigration issues. She is currently a John S. Knight Fellow in journalism at Stanford University.