mike hout on “rationing opportunity”

i’m finally catching up on some of the notes i’ve had sitting around for – egad, 4 months!. i heard mike hout talk at princeton back in march about his new project, which is in part about how the higher ed supply is not keeping up with the demand.

going back to reconstruct these notes was faster than i anticipated, but unfortunately that’s because they are in large part indecipherable; it’s just been too long since i looked at them and i don’t remember what all my fragments were intended to remind me. his charts were the best, but unfortunately i was even worse at reproducing those, so we’ll just have to wait till he makes them available or publishes them. lesson learned. but anyway, he had some pretty interesting things to say, and i’ll try to summarize a few of them here.

the one most surprising finding is that college graduation rates have actually SLOWED since 1975, even though demand is way up.

student incentives are up – parent education is higher, there’s more prep, and obviously a huge wage return. But even kids of college grads have a 50% college degree rate – which is double their peers but lower than expected. So why aren’t students finishing their degrees? The main explanation is that supply is not keeping up, for a number of reasons:

  • the admissions rates at very selective schools are down – from 18% 30 years ago, to 8.5% now, net of increasing applications per student
  • public spending is down, leading to limits in quantity (ie, seats) and cuts in quality (Hout gave the example of the Cal State system, which has mandates to admit all students who meet GPA and test score benchmarks, but has not increased its number of faculty or courses to match the demand – resulting in larger classes, higher rates of degree abandonment, and longer time to degree)
  • time to degree is up. is this because students are unprepared? maybe partly (there are more remedial courses now), but more because of abandonment. this isn’t in my notes, but I’m pretty sure Hout said time to degree is up for every type of school EXCEPT private 4 years.

This results in some big problems. It’s harder to get your degree when you enter with a larger cohort (Hout cited Bound & Turner 2007 that being in a small cohort boosts BA attainment by 4.5%). There are increased cohorts especially for unpopular majors – Hout called this “majoring in leftovers”, citing the admissions stats from Berkeley that show higher selectivity in technical fields (admission of 22% in college of engineering vs 33% in letters & sciences). And the probability of finishing a BA is falling for those who start at 4 year and 2 year public schools (but not for 4 year privates). And while tuition is rising at the same rate at public and private, borrowing increased 60% from 1992-2000, mostly due to increased time to degree.

Hout argues that public spending needs to increase to meet demand, and also that private schools could use their endowments to expand seats at very little quality cost. He didn’t make the inequality points explicitly, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because he saw it underlying the whole argument. So I’ll make them: all of these trends are disproportionately impacting the least privileged students. Class size is increasing at public schools, especially 2nd tier systems like Cal State. Cohort sizes are increasing at public schools. Time to degree is increasing at public schools, and abandonment rates are higher. This leaves us with a huge population of students who are taking on debt to finance credits that never result in degrees (or, therefore, higher wages).

This sort of thing, I think, is what encourages folks to think about the “beyond college for all” approach of Rosenbaum. Are we really doing students any favors by pushing them in to college – especially 2 year schools – when their chances of success are so low? Rosenbaum says that 6 year completion rates of 2 year degrees for students with low GPAs (a C average, I think) are 13%. He argues that we need to make better high school and vocational training for these students instead of pushing them all to college. I’m partial to this because of the real debt (not to mention dashed dreams) students have to shoulder for no real gain; but on the other hand I think public higher education should be available to anyone who wants to pursue it. Of course, maybe completion rates wouldn’t be so abysmal if we were properly funding state schools (at the secondary and tertiary levels), so perhaps it’s misplaced to lay the blame on students who go to college when they shouldn’t, or on high school counselors who fail to set realistic expectations for those students.

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    One Comment on “mike hout on “rationing opportunity””

    1. Tim Ramsey Says:

      I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.

      Tim Ramsey


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