Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Threshhold questions for higher education

September 24, 2011

Sheila Suess KennedyIn a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine, Joe Nocera had the sort of superficially thoughtful opinion piece that increasingly characterizes America’s “chattering classes.”

The essay was a defense of for-profit colleges. Nocera acknowledges the obvious: Such colleges enroll only 12 percent of the nation’s college students but gobble up 25 percent of all federal student aid; fewer than half of their students graduate; and some 47 percent of those who were paying back their student loans in 2009 had defaulted by 2010.

Despite the statistics and lawsuits over unethical recruitment practices, Nocera asserts, “The country really can’t afford to put [for-profit colleges] out of business.”

Why? Nocera says education is increasingly critical to the ability to get a decent job and that for-profit schools educate poor, working-class students who might otherwise not be able to attend any college.

Think about the assumptions built into that argument.

The first (and in my mind, the most pernicious) is the conflation of education and certification. One of the thorniest issues in higher education today revolves around that tension. Parents understandably want their children to emerge from college with a marketable skill, but if that is all they emerge with—if students do not graduate with a deeper appreciation of the importance of history, culture, literature, science and philosophy—they have attended a trade school, not an educational institution.

The second assumption Nocera makes is that kids from poor and working-class families are prevented from attending state-supported and not-for-profit colleges and universities. He is only half right: Poor students with poor academic credentials do have trouble accessing institutions of higher education, but not simply because they are poor.

Colleges and universities that are genuinely engaged in education must have standards; allowing students to enroll who clearly do not have the wherewithal to succeed not only diminishes the classroom experience for more-prepared students, it is manifestly unfair to those who are admitted despite being doomed to fail.

At IUPUI, we talk about these issues a lot. We recognize that poor students often have poor records because they attended substandard schools, and we try to fashion admission standards that allow us to separate academic potential from past performance. We schedule courses so students with full-time jobs can attend, and we offer a wide variety of support mechanisms for students facing fiscal, emotional and physical challenges.

But at the end of the day, we are in the “business” of providing education. We are not a trade school, and we aren’t going to rip off both students and taxpayers by admitting anyone who can qualify for a government loan.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were driving to Costco, and I noticed the number of billboards advertising “colleges” I’d never heard of. They all trumpeted the same message: Come to XYZ and get a credential that will get you a good job in less time.

Nocera says we need for-profit colleges and just need to tweak government regulations to reduce incentives for them to cheat.

I say beware of easy answers to the wrong questions.

The question isn’t, do we need for-profit colleges? The questions (plural) are: How do we define college education? How do we provide job skills training to those who cannot benefit from—or don’t want—an academic program? How do we improve K-12 education so that being poor does not doom children to a second- or third-rate elementary education that makes it difficult to get into college?

And along the way, can we encourage a decent respect for academic excellence and the life of the mind?•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com.

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