Rebuilding the American economy

Part 2: The leaky pipeline

Imagine a viaduct that carries water from snow-capped mountains, across a broad and arid plain, finally ending in a city where it provides water for every conceivable purpose that a metropolitan area might have: drinking, washing, bathing, cooking, fire suppression, car washes, any number of manufacturing functions, plus irrigation of lawns, gardens, and golf courses. Along its journey the viaduct is tapped by many farms and a few small communities, resulting in a significant reduction in the volume of water delivered to the city. Let us further imagine that, with the growth of the city (or perhaps reduced snowfall in the mountains), there is no longer sufficient water to meet all its needs. What does the city do?

I am describing essentially what happened in the last few years (but not this year!) in many parts of California and other southwestern states. Obviously, the first step is conservation, and that involves setting priorities. Some functions — drinking water, for example — are more important than others, such as irrigating golf courses. But it is especially important to minimize the loss of water from leaks in the system, and from evaporation, and that means examining the integrity of the viaduct itself.

Suppose we think of the American educational system as somehow analogous to our viaduct. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it is still useful. In recent years, about 3.7 million children begin elementary school annually, and 83 percent of them (3.1 million) will receive a high school diploma. Of that 83 percent, 66 percent (2 million) enter higher education immediately: One-third attend community college, almost half go to a public four-year school, and about 20 percent enter a private, four-year, college or university.

At each step of the way, some students drop out without a diploma or certificate in hand. They are akin to leaks in the viaduct: They, like the water, don’t reach their intended destination and fail to realize their full potential. Moreover, the expected return on the investment that society has made in constructing the pipeline (be it an educational pipeline or a water pipeline) is diminished because the planned-for result (a degree, or a high volume of water from the tap) doesn’t happen. Educational dropouts are likely to struggle economically to provide for themselves and their families, and to be forced to rely on some part of the social safety net, at additional cost to society.

It all seems so obvious. All we need do is patch the leaks, and we get a greatly enhanced outcome (as measured by the number who complete vs. the number who drop out).  But if it were that easy, wouldn’t we have done the patching years ago? Surely this problem must have been on the radar screen for decades. Doesn’t that mean we must be doing about as well as could be expected?

There are three lines of inquiry that we must pursue in order to answer this question.

First, not all leaks in the pipeline have the same impact. Leaks that happen prior to high school graduation, for example, have a huge economic impact on those who drop out. Currently, it’s very difficult for dropouts to get back into the educational system, and their limited educational achievements all but guarantee devastatingly limited economic futures. Leaks later in the pipeline are less consequential, in an economic sense, because they occur after the student has achieved a greater level of educational attainment, and therefore has greater earning power. And at any given moment, some individuals whose educational progress was interrupted are renewing their studies, augmenting the number of students who enrolled directly after completing high school.

Second, not all leaks are the same size. The 17 percent high school incompletion rate is dwarfed by the university incompletion rate of about 40 percent, and is tiny in comparison to the community college incompletion rate of almost 80 percent.  (These figures are based on the percentage of those graduating within three years of beginning community college, and six years of beginning a four-year institution. Part-time students typically take longer, and therefore these incompletion rates will fall somewhat over time, as the part-time students complete their studies.)

Third, the students in these leaks do not represent a cross section of the entire student population. Disproportionately represented in the leaks are students of color and economically disadvantaged students. Students from families in the top quarter of family income, for example, are eight times more likely to earn a college diploma than are students from families in the bottom quarter of family income, in part because students who are poor are far less likely to enter college or even to complete high school. Moreover, this educational disparity based on family income is at least as great today as it was 40 years ago. We could make huge economic and societal gains in this country if all we did was to focus on closing the achievement gap of students of color and/or who are from impoverished families.

So it’s not at all hard to identify the location of the leaks.  But how do we repair the leaks—or is that even possible?

We will take up this question Part 3:  Focusing on Success.