In July 2009, President Barack Obama vowed that the United States “will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” While this echoes a widespread sentiment that the country needs to re-create the last century’s “Golden Age” of American higher education in which high completion rates were the norm, few have bothered to ask whether this era was actually as golden as conventional wisdom suggests.
In The Attrition Tradition in American Higher Education: Connecting Past and Present, noted education historian John R. Thelin reevaluates the idyllic image of university life in the early twentieth century and discovers a long history of college noncompletion. As Thelin argues, “We must consider the fact that combating attrition is expensive, difficult, and—contrary to conventional wisdom—a historically persistent challenge.”
Employing new cohort-tracking data, Thelin finds that university students not only dropped out at a high rate in the early 1900s but that college attrition was also largely ignored by university leadership and federal authorities until the last few decades. Reversing this trend, he concludes, will require a realistic assessment of ambitious completion promises and a new commitment by university leaders to reflect on their own performance data when mapping a better course for serving students.
“If we are to tackle the challenge of raising graduation rates in an era of increased access—a strikingly modern goal—it will demand an accurate sense of how far we have come in our higher education aspirations and how difficult and costly it has been to get there,” notes Andrew P. Kelly, research fellow in education policy studies at AEI. “Thelin’s historical recounting of American universities in the last century provides policymakers and university leaders with this important context.”
Click here to read the full text as an Adobe Acrobat PDF. Thelin is Professor Of History at the University of Kentucky and prepared this paper for the American Enterprise Institute.