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Should every young adult attend college? Not the way it's working now.

It’s an American mantra that getting ahead requires college. The growing disparity in income between college graduates and those without provides ample evidence of that. Simply put, young adults with a four-year college degree earn about $17,000 more annually than those without one.

So, everyone should go to college, right? Problem solved? Unfortunately, going to college isn’t the same thing as graduating. The national six-year graduation rate of four-year institutions is less than 60% (See Figure 14). So, over 40% of those we send to college don’t make it through.

Millennials are often touted as the most educated generation ever. This is normally accompanied by a statistic on the proportion who have entered college. That’s fine, but what matters is how they exit. In 2013 34% of 25 – 32 year-olds had a Bachelor’s degree. So those without a degree outnumber those with a degree by nearly 2:1.

Graduation prospects are not random. In fact, if you examine them at the institutional level they are fairly easy to predict. US News and World Report has created a prediction model for graduation rate based on six factors. US News doesn’t say how predictive their model is, but my own analysis indicates it’s likely to be very accurate. Let’s look at a chart which plots the relationship between one of their factors, SAT scores, and the six-year graduation rate for Liberal Arts Colleges ranked in US News’ Higher Education Guide.

This one variable can tell you a lot about an institution’s graduation rate. Add the other five factors, and the prediction will be even more accurate. Returning to the chart, there is a great deal of debate regarding the degree to which SAT’s scores are a proxy for a variety of socioeconomic factors, rather than being a measure in themselves. That’s too complicated a subject for this post. And the debate gets in the way of a simple truth. Institutions that cater to students with low SAT scores don't appear to be serving them well.

What can data analytics tell us?

The information presented so far calls for three, related courses of action.

  • Diagnose and address the problems of low graduation rates of some colleges, assuming no change in the current level of student preparation.

  • Determine the optimal ways to enhance the preparation of college-bound high school graduates.

  • Act to provide education and employment opportunities targeted for the majority of people who, at present, aren’t likely to become college graduates.

The last point is worth highlighting. Salaries in constant dollars for young high school graduates without a four-year degree are lower than they were fifty years ago. Recently I’ve read many accounts of how Artificial Intelligence is going to create more job opportunities than it will displace. I hope that turns out to be true, but not one of the authors has expressed awareness of this negative, long-term trend in wages or explained why AI would reverse it.

How do we translate analysis to action?

Analytics is already playing a role in boosting educational outcomes. For example, over the past few years, through extensive analysis and community action, Takoma, Washington has not only seen an increase of the proportion of students entering college, but also seen an increase in the proportion who ultimately graduate.

Takoma’s program emphasized community involvement, which seems essential. A study released in 2015 demonstrated children raised in two-parent households are nearly three times more likely to complete college than children in single-parent households. And the advantage of two-parented children is accelerating. Schools are no substitute for engaged parents and family, but, through study, we can determine what the community can do to compensate as best we can.

Where can analytics take us?

. . .And analytics coupled with research can take us much farther. Let’s take, for example, the low graduation rates from four-year institutions. As with most consumer analyses, there are likely multiple contributing factors. Here are four based on my reading on the subject 1) a lack of financial resources 2) family crises 3) lack of student preparation 4) lack of student commitment.

Those all may be valid explanations, but one person's opinion and/or experience is no substitute for a disciplined research process. Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the contributing factors would involve a review of existing research and conversations with those who created it. Once these are documented, facilitated discussions with students would follow to not only further validate the causes, but also to go deeper—to get more of the background which may help suggest solutions.

Students and former students should be selected for these discussions to ensure a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, levels of preparation, and institutions attended. In addition to serving as validation (or not) of the prior research, these discussions would also be focused on identifying key issues and concerns that had been missed so far in the process.

These conversations would also be the proper place to uncover the benefits of college that are hard to capture with statistics--for example, the impact college may have on an individual's perception of self-worth. This research coupled with additional data analytics would serve as a solid foundation for the next step, which would be to determine how significant a role each of the identified factors plays in the success of an institution’s graduation rate. This could be accomplished through a carefully crafted survey conducted among a comprehensive, representative sample of students and institutions.

The blending of qualitative, survey, and data analytics would create a multi-dimensional picture. Most research incorporates, at most, two of these three. This leaves too much potential insight on the table to inform the next phase of work, which would be to organize a robust set of discussions to identify and test potential solutions.

A concluding thought; we may need to think less romantically about the four-year experience. The notion of “College” represents a major part of the American dream, and it’s the right choice for many. But college isn’t the dream. It’s a means to an end. The dream is that everyone should have the opportunity to improve oneself educationally, spiritually, morally, and economically; that is to pursue happiness. Let’s use data, analytics, research, and action to help our nation's youth get there.


Chase Intel helps its clients create insights from data to drive customer engagement and profits. As with the above example, these insights are often founded on a fresh look at our clients’ objectives and the data, analysis, and actions required to achieve them.


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