Who should go to college?

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Should people with intellectual disabilities that mean they “cannot pass college entrance exams, write papers, finish assigned reading, or complete course requirements” still go to college? And should colleges enroll students — with or without disabilities — when the colleges reasonably know that those students will end up paying thousands of dollars in tuition and not completing coursework? These questions are posed by two articles in the news this week.

First, Alleen Brown’s article in the TC Daily Planet explores a new movement that maintains all people have the right to go to college, regardless of their intellectual ability or disability.

Second, an 1,100 page federal report focuses attention on private, for-profit colleges that rake in billions of dollars in federal student aid dollars, pile up hefty profits for their owners, and fail more than half of the students they enroll. According to the report:

A 2-year investigation by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions demonstrated that Federal taxpayers are investing billions of dollars a year, $32 billion in the most recent year, in companies that operate for-profit colleges.  Yet, more than half of the students who enrolled in those colleges in 2008-9 left without a degree or diploma within a median of 4 months

The issue of enrolling students who have no chance of success is not limited to for-profit schools. I’ve taught occasional courses in several local non-profit and public institutions. My experience, which I am pretty sure is shared by most writing instructors, is that many people come to college without adequate reading and writing skills for college level (or even high school-level) work. Students take out loans to pay for courses that they are destined to fail. Then they are stuck with debt and no degree.

The problem is far bigger in the for-profit schools, which charge far more and offer less in the way of student services and support. Students leave these institutions, which charge far more than public colleges and universities, with massive debt loads:

Ninety-six percent of for-profit students take out student loans, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education data.   In comparison, 13 percent of students at community colleges, 48 percent at 4-year public, and 57 percent at 4-year private non-profit colleges borrow money to pay for school.

For-profit schools enroll far more high dollar borrowers.  Fifty-seven percent of Bachelor’s students who graduate from a for-profit college owe $30,000 or more.  In contrast, 25 percent of those who earned degrees in the private, non-profit sector and 12 percent from the public sector borrowed at this level.

Is it ethical for college to enroll students without regard to their preparedness or ability to succeed, take all the money those students can borrow or get from Pell grants and veterans’ benefits, and then fail them? That’s a question that I think every college administration should be grappling with right now. If students have the intellectual ability to do college-level work, but lack the preparation that enables them to succeed, then somebody — the colleges or those high schools that graduated students who can’t read and write — should be delivering remedial classes.

Does the question of ethics even arise with for-profit colleges, whose mandate is to maximize profit for the owners and shareholders? Maybe not. Corporations’ only real obligation is to deliver profits, and their only real responsibility is to their shareholders. But when they are hurting students and gobbling up taxpayer dollars, somebody needs to stop them. The Harkin Report outlines some remedies, and the next Congress needs to act on them.

So, circling back to the beginning question: Who should go to college? My answer: only those people who have the preparation and capacity to complete college courses.  Anyone else belongs in some other kind of program.

One of the Facebook commenters on the TCDP article wrote:

All people have the right to pursue their interests and strengths to their fullest potential, and should be encouraged as such from the get-go. This may mean college, this may mean a specialty trade, this may mean single classes. But I think we are well past the point where it’s realistic to say proper education means only a four-year university. Education is never ending, and should be a constant pursuit to anyone who desires to do so. That includes those whose roads have bumpier paths of development than others.

I am not sure whether the commenter would agree with my analysis, but I agree with hers. Education is for everybody, but college is not. We need to pay more attention to a wide variety of educational options, for a wide variety of people.

Education is for job preparation, for personal growth and fulfillment, for civic responsibility, for parenting readiness, and for the sheer joy of learning. College is one place for education, but we do colleges — as well as students and society — a disservice by pretending that it is the only route to education or success.