Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Do college dropouts really cost the nation billions?

The Salt Lake Tribune  recently reported under the headline, "College dropouts cost taxpayers billions"  that many students who receive federal grants or financial aid in their first years fail to graduate.  The article and the study suggest that the money is thus poorly invested.

Really?  After all, college graduates also cost taxpayers billions.  The truth is that money spent to help students in college is only returned over time in taxes and contributions to community well-being. 

The bigger point is this: the education discussion is so fixated on college graduation as preparation for employment that politicians, researchers, and policy wonks overlook this single fact: going to college is about learning.  If students learn in their time in college, then they (and the rest of us) benefit, even if they don't graduate.  And if they don't learn, graduation gets us nowhere.  I am in total agreement that more students need to succeed in college to ensure our future well-being.  But I disagree with the related notion, floated in this article and at the core of the recent Obama Administration announcement of support for community colleges, that a college education is foremost about employment.  Education is first about learning, and second about becoming.  The act of learning and the act of becoming an educated person are prior to employment, not eclipsed by it.

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