The American public apparently blames college students for low college graduation rates. According to an article by Eric Gorski in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The public pins most of the blame for poor college graduation rates on students and their parents and gives a pass to colleges, government officials and others, a new Associated Press-Stanford University poll shows.

The belief that students are most at fault for graduation rates is a troubling sign for reformers who have elevated college completion to the forefront of higher education policy debates and pushed colleges to fix the problem, said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford.

Well I guess. But it all depends on how you ask the question. As the article explains,

When asked where the blame lies for graduation rates at public four-year colleges, 7 in 10 said students shouldered either a great deal or a lot of it, and 45 percent felt that way about parents. Anywhere between 25 percent and 32 percent of those polled blamed college administrators, professors, teachers, unions, state education officials and federal education officials.

This is an interesting point, but it seems mostly to reveal the limits of surveys as far as policy matters go. Of course individuals are to blame when they don’t graduate from college. If you don’t graduate from college it’s your fault. If I don’t graduate from college it’s my fault. No argument there. But it also doesn’t matter.

If almost 40 percent of people who start college never graduate that indicates there might be a systemic problem, no matter who the “public pins most of the blame” on.

As Ben Miller and Phuong Ly noted in an article they wrote for the magazine a few months ago:

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.

“They leave because they don’t perceive that the educational benefit of college exceeds the substantial expense of time and money.” So sure, it’s their fault. They’re the ones who left. But do we want to assign blame or do we want to fix the problem?

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer