ECONOMIC ANALYSIS: Turnabout is fair play in evaluating education

Much has been made in recent years of the performance of our state’s secondary schools. In particular, the recent revisions made to high school graduation statistics, suggesting that as few as three out of four ninth-graders graduate with their class have sounded an alarm. People are

saying something is wrong with K-12 education in Indiana, and they would appear to have plenty of ammunition to support their arguments.

But turnabout is fair play in the business of evaluating education. Since many of those critical of K-12 education are associated with colleges and universities, school boards and superintendents around the state might get some satisfaction from a recent report that casts graduation rates in Indiana’s public higher education institutions in what at first glance would appear to be an unflattering light.

As reported by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, data from the largest public universities in Indiana, as compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, show that less than 75 percent-and in some cases as little as 30 percent-of those enrolling obtain a bachelor degree within six years.

It is easier to compile and report these statistics than to get a handle on what they mean. To its credit, the chamber’s report, published in the latest issue of Biz Voice magazine, does an excellent job of placing each university’s graduation rates in perspective, by comparing them with other institutions around the country of similar stature. Aggregate data on student quality, as measured by median scores on entrance examinations, also provide a controlling factor to consider.

Yet the implications of the findings that many Indiana higher education institutions rank in the bottom half of these peer rankings in graduation rates are far from obvious. In particular, the article’s contention that the data point out defects requiring correction by Purdue, Ball State and other high-profile state universities in Indiana is, at best, simplistic.

Of course, I work for a state university, so I might be expected to voice this sentiment. I also might be expected to say that if the high schools in the state are not doing a good job preparing students for college, their graduates’ poorer-or at least slower-performance in securing degrees when they attend postsecondary institutions is not altogether surprising.

By this logic, when we blame universities for lower-than-average graduation rates, we are effectively shooting the messenger. Yet I am reluctant to push the argument that lower graduation rates are yet another problem caused by underperforming K-12 education, for at least two reasons.

For one thing, education-any education-beyond high school has a substantial payout for lifetime earnings. After all, neither Bill Gates nor Michael Dell received degrees from the institutions they attended within six years.

But more important, this business of pointing fingers of blame in the wake of research findings on educational attainment-particularly at K-12 schools and state universities whose reliance on public support make them directly accountable-doesn’t really move us far along in understanding and solving Indiana’s historically low educational attainment levels. Universities blame high schools, high schools blame parents, and parents blame television.

It’s all a form of denial over the unpleasant truth that we collectively do not value education in Indiana as much as other states do, including our Midwestern neighbors. Labor force participation rates and earnings data suggest that our younger people, on average, value the immediate benefits of working today more than the future value of the higher earnings that putting off employment in favor of schooling will bring.

And that, perhaps more than anything, is one of the biggest challenges our state faces today.

Barkey is an economist and director of economic and policy study at the College of Business, Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at

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