Colleges Need to Get Real

December 19, 2011 at 3:44 PM 2 comments

From education to finance, American institutions have raised avoidance of accountability to an art form. The blurring of lines among industry players has allowed them to diffuse responsibility for their basic missions. Within education, high schools and colleges are collaborating creatively in dual enrollment programs to lower failure rates. Ultimately, however, they may be conspiring to conceal inadequate college preparation by offering college-lite for an exorbitant price to students who cannot afford it. Their efforts would be better spent getting back to basics on their own turf. 

College (kol-ij) n. a place where students go to finish high school and/or get ready for grad school while accumulating massive amounts of debt. Often found adjacent to prestigious institutions offering access to elite faculty who can only be seen by students pursuing advanced degrees.

There was a time when wealthy young dilettantes who needed a little more time to grow up attended exclusive prep schools that their parents could afford with ease. The goal was success in college once they were ready. Somehow, the American Dream has mutated such that financially strapped, first-generation college students are paying premium prices for four-year prep schools, followed by unemployment and massive debt problems.

Something is wrong in this picture. The first clue is the huge debt burden among young people…many of whom are also jobless. The culprit? No one in particular. Rather, it is a perfect storm of weak public schools, nouveau all-star colleges, and opportunistic financiers. Before we can solve the problem, however, we must unravel the fuzzy roles and accountabilities lost in emerging partnerships, collaborations, and joint ventures. The punch line: colleges need to better serve their undergraduates in the primary mission of higher education, high schools need to ensure that their graduates are truly ready for college, and financial institutions need to share the burden of risk or lower their interest rates.

Let’s begin with the public school system and college readiness. Ten years ago, the nation set the goal of college readiness for all students by high school graduation. Most schools have fallen behind on that goal, according to standardized tests. Nevertheless, as an alternative to testing, many high school principals naively set out to achieve 100% college application rates among graduating seniors as a proxy for readiness. Well-meaning guidance counselors facilitated broad searches for colleges and helped students complete applications; volunteers supported students through their applications for financial aid. For many low-income families, children were going off to college for the first time. Mission accomplished.

Colleges experienced higher application rates and, in many cases, higher acceptance rates among their admitted applicants. Free market economics worked, and colleges raised their tuition and fees in response to this increase in demand.  Administrators were bewildered but pleased to discover that a more expensive college seemed to attract even more applicants. In addition, oversubscribed colleges were strapped for dorm space, asking students to share tight spaces for more money. In the meantime, want ads were full of opportunities for adjunct faculty members. Access to tenure-track teachers became elusive. Students found themselves paying Ivy prices for average schools at best.

Meanwhile, financial institutions expanded college lending operations and actively courted university officials for access to students for underwriting purposes. Interest rates to students rose, and risks for banks declined with government payment guarantees. All agreements were packaged by the schools, and banking relationships were ancillary.

As colleges grew in size, undergraduates found themselves with fewer safety nets. To complicate matters, many students and their families were unaware of the strings attached to financial aid. Need-based scholarships turned into high-interest loans when ill-prepared students failed to meet GPA requirements for retaining those scholarships. Already committed, students chose to sign the loan papers and stay in school. The Dream would remain within reach. Predictably, college drop-out rates soon grew, along with a new underclass of young people faced with a mountain of debt. In the highest-risk populations, college completion rates fell to the single digits.

To address this problem proactively, some very good dual enrollment programs have been developed that offer previews into college course work at little or no cost for high school students. This has become an important part of the community college mission in many localities. However, four-year colleges also have gotten into the act to grease a path to long-term commitment for students who have little chance of success. In addition, many institutions have all but forgotten their attention to excellence in undergraduate education. They offer a rite of passage that holds empty promise for students passing through them, continuing the new tradition of poor preparation for life. As college-lite has become a reality, graduate degrees have become the expectation for many professions.

We are not doing our young people any favors by dealing in false hopes. High school diplomas need to represent genuine college readiness. At the college level, $200,000 is too much, but it must at least buy a real education. And guaranteed student loans need to carry interest consistent with that guarantee.

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Entry filed under: College Readiness, Higher Ed Issues, Special Rants.

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