| July 19, 2012

Professors provide fresh thinking on college grads

“Gov. Mary Fallin and politicians-turned-higher-education-bureaucrats like Chancellor of the State System of Higher Education Glen Johnson and University of Oklahoma President David Boren agree that the state’s future relies upon more Oklahomans earning college degrees,” law professor Andrew Spiropoulos writes this week in The Journal Record. “However, this aspiration may represent the triumph of hope over reality.”

Dr. Spiropoulos, a former Heritage Foundation fellow who now serves as OCPA’s Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow, continues:

As a university professor, I’ll benefit if more people go to four-year colleges. But self-interest aside, I think we need to be careful and skeptical about shoving more people into universities. …

The problem is that it is likely that university enrollments have reached, and probably surpassed, the number of high school graduates who can succeed in a quality four-year degree program. As the social scientist Charles Murray argues, if one analyzes the results of ability tests over time, only about 20 percent of the high school population demonstrates the capacity to do bachelor’s degree-level work. Americans, however, send twice as many high school graduates to universities than the ability of the pool of graduates would justify. We, then, should not be surprised that only two Oklahoma public four-year universities graduate more than half their students; many of these students never belonged there in the first place.

Our leaders need to stop raising false expectations about degrees, demeaning our children for their blunders, and start talking about what really matters. The hard truth is that you will not succeed in the 21st century without training after high school. A relative few can, and should, earn bachelor’s degrees and beyond, but for most people a four-year college is the wrong choice. We need to provide excellent community college and career training programs and encourage high school graduates to prepare for and take advantage of them.

That’s sound thinking. And writing in the Summer 2011 edition of The Family in America, Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson also provide some valuable insights. (Even though OCPA is not a “family policy” think tank, it has become clear to me in my 17 years here that, ultimately, free markets and limited government don’t stand a chance against the forces of fatherlessness and family disintegration. See, for example, David French’s recent post at National Review Online, “The Sexual Revolution Depends on Big Government.”) Christensen and Patterson write:

The news media and the political class uphold higher education as the ticket that delivers the American Dream, yet rarely are they willing to identify the ticket that may be most responsible for students’ actually earning that coveted degree. Two studies that crunch data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), however, make it clear that having married parents is key to both attending and finishing college.

The findings of the first study, by Molly A. Martin of Penn State, are sure to confound the growing number of “Murphy Browns,” even among some political conservatives, who think they can raise successful children without a husband. Looking at all five waves of data of the NELS (1988 through 2002), which tracked children from the eighth grade until most were 26, Martin found that the ability of parents to transmit high socioeconomic status to their children—particularly educational success—is highly dependent upon family structure.

Even as the single mothers in the NELS sample had higher average levels of education than married parents, their children scored significantly less than children living with their biological mother and father in all three measures of academic achievement in the eighth grade: GPA, scores on a standardized math test, and math or science class placement. These same children were also less likely to finish high school, attend college, and earn a college degree. And by age 21, these children had completed fewer average years of schooling. The effects of family structure were statistically significant in all seven educational variables in the baseline statistical model and in all but one measure in a second model that controlled for the effects of parents’ education. In essence, having a single mother, even one who is highly educated, yielded lower returns across the child’s educational career than having married biological parents.

The second study, by Roger A. Wojtkiewicz and Melissa Holtzman of Ball State University, yielded similar results. Analyzing data from three waves of the NELS (1998, 1992, and 2000), these researchers found that “children living in stepparent homes not only fare worse than children living in two-biological-parent homes, but they also fare as badly as, or worse than, children living with single parents.”

Attempting to explain the lower college-graduation rates among children from broken homes, the Ball State sociologists measured the effects of family structure on “overall” college graduation as well as on three transitions to college graduation: high-school graduation, four-year college attendance among those who graduated from high school, and college graduation among those who attended a four-year school. In multivariate statistical models, the combination of a full range background factors, including family income and parental education, were able to explain the lower levels of overall college-graduation rates among children of single parents but not children in stepfamilies. The background factors were less able to explain the negative effects of both kinds of broken families in the three transitions measures, negative effects that appear especially pronounced in the depressed college-graduation rates among those who attended a four-year college.

These findings lead Wojtkiewicz and Holtzman to observe that even when children of broken families attend college, they “ultimately lack forms of support that are necessary to see them through to graduation,” whether those support forms are “emotional, monetary, or both.”

Given this verdict, Americans have to wonder why they are hearing no outcry over the nation’s retreat from marriage from commentators who say they want to see more young adults graduating from college.

Brandon Dutcher can be reached at or

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