The Attrition Tradition in American Higher Education
Connecting Past and Present

In July 2009, President Barack Obama set out a bold higher education agenda for his administration and promised that the U.S. would once again lead the world in college degree attainment. Given the nation's current level of college completion, it is reasonable to wonder whether such ambitions are feasible. While there is a sense that the country needs to recreate the "Golden Age" of American higher education, where high completion rates were the norm, few have bothered to ask whether this era was actually as golden as the conventional wisdom would suggest.

In one of the few efforts to examine this question, John R. Thelin, research professor at the Education Policy Studies School at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), reevaluates the idyllic image of university life in an earlier period and uncovers the historical roots of America's "attrition tradition." Thelin finds that not only did university students often drop out at a high rate in the early 1900s, but also that college attrition was largely ignored until the last few decades. If we are to tackle the challenge of raising graduation rates in an era of increased access--a strikingly modern goal--it will require fine-grained, institution-level analysis, Thelin argues, in addition to significant investments in improved data systems for America's colleges and universities.

Using detailed cohort tracking data and a seasoned historical perspective on the origins of today's "war on attrition," this AEI working paper should give pause to ambitious completion promises and prod university leaders to reflect on their own performance data to map a better course for serving students. As Thelin notes, without an accurate sense of how far we have come in our higher education aspirations--and how difficult and costly it has been to get there--we cannot strategically plot the road ahead.

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John R. Thelin is a research professor at the Education Policy Studies School at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education. Thelin can be reached at jthelin@uky.edu.

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