Ecologists, Engineers & the Real World

David Brooks offers an op-ed in the New York Times today about recent policy proposals that seek to increase the percentage of Americans who graduate from college. He sees two camps among the policy wonks: "ecologists" and "engineers." Ecologists, he argues, think about problems — and solutions — in terms of a web of human relationships. Engineers, on the other hand, think about allocating resources. When politicians hope to fix a problem by throwing more money at it, he sees a bunch of policy "engineers" who don't grasp the underlying human realities.

First he looks at the money side of the equation: Over the past three decades, he says, the government has spent roughly $750 billion on financial aid, while "the percentage of Americans who graduate has barely budged" and the "number of Americans who drop out of college leaps from year to year." (Incidentally, economist Richard Vedder  has argued that the abundance of cheap student loans actually causes tuition to spiral upwards.) Mark Kantrowitz of has since disputed Brooks's numbers, pointing to Census Bureau data showing that the "percentage of the population 25 or older obtaining at least a bachelor's degree increased from 9.4 percent in 1965 to 27.7 percent in 2004."

On the people side of the equation, Brooks points to studies demonstrating that only a "relatively small slice drop out because they can't afford college. Perhaps 8 percent are driven away purely for financial reasons." Instead, he argues,

"The reasons for dropping out are as numerous as the people who do it. Many students are academically unprepared for college work. Many suffer personal or family crises. Many are bored in the classroom and disengaged on campus. Many suffer from a strange cognitive dissonance. They have high aspirations. They know what they have to do to succeed. Yet when it comes time to, say, show up for the math test, they blow it off. And yet they still seem confident they will achieve their goals."

Brooks's observation comports closely with what I see every day working with current and former college students who make up my admittedly non-scientific-sized sample. I do hear about financial troubles interfering with school, but they are rarely the reason that people ended up taking time off during college or dropping out. Rather, what I see over and over again is lack of motivation, of mentorship, of a realistic sense of how different their lives would be in the long run with a successful transcript than without one. I see a lot of people go off the rails when they get to college because they lack the maturity and self-discipline to succeed in the looser, unsupervised world of college; they go a bit ga-ga after escaping the confines of high school and the parental roof. Others lose sight entirely of why they're even in college as they focus all their energy on their social lives. On the less fun side, I hear about parents getting divorced, eating disorders, substance abuse, and depression. It's not clear to me either that more money for college tuition will fix those problems.

As a former graduate school admissions officer, I've heard a lot of excuses about how hard it was to adjust to college life, and would I please overlook this big chunk in someone's transcript because of the following eight extenuating circumstances. Part of me sympathized, while the other part of me shook my head.

I would encourage high school students and their parents to adopt a practice that the Europeans, British, and Australians adopted a long time ago, with real success: the gap year. Let's face it: most high school seniors are not ready for the freedom or rigor of college. Even the top colleges in the United States smile on a productive gap year (or more) between high school and college. Whether living on a shoe-string budget teaching English in Eastern Europe or China, or working retail to save money for college, gap year students arrive on campus with more motivation and more gratitude than the kids whose parents pushed them into college right out of high school. And when it comes time to compete for a good job after graduation or a slot at a prestigious graduate program, they'll have to make far fewer excuses for themselves.