Friday, November 13, 2009

Debating College for All

It's easy to get lost in the excitement over what appears to be a New Deal for higher education. This was an exciting year, what with the nation's president stepping forward with substantial goals to increase college attainment, heavily invest in community colleges, and reform the financial aid system. The message is loud and quite clear: more Americans should be thinking about college and moving towards enrollment.

But is the message the right one? The Chronicle Review recently tackled the issue by asking a variety of experts to weigh in on this question: are too many students going to college? The answers from folks ranging from Richard Vedder to Sandy Baum were varied and thoughtful, but some of the most difficult questions and concerns weren't raised. Perhaps it's because even saying some things feels like opening Pandora's box. By articulating questions we don't have easy answers to, we create the possibility that policymakers will too-quickly address them, without engaging in the really hard prerequisite discussions. Even so, there's more that needs to be said-- so here forgive me as I close my eyes and throw more fuel on the fire:

Q: "Are too many students going to college?"

1. The question implies a focus on a critical threshold, an approach that seems appropriate only if one believes the ultimate goal is to produce a college-educated workforce of a certain absolute size or proportion of the population. This belies an assumption that the purpose of college attendance is primarily economic. Think about how the question (and the answer) changes if we instead ask: Are there meaningful disparities in college-going, and if so why?

2. Consider your reaction to #1, and then ask yourself: Why are we (the public) more attracted to (and/or comfortable with) justifications for college-going based on economic competitiveness and return on investment than with justifications based on social mobility and inequality?

3. On the other hand: Why are we pushing everyone to become part of the middle-class by attending college? What does that say about how we value the working class?

4. If we're really concerned with inequality in higher education, are we trying to ensure equality of opportunity (access) or equality of outcomes (degree completion)? If it's the latter, what are we willing to tolerate in order to achieve that goal?

5. Are we moving towards a societal embrace of college-as-privilege to college-as-right? If so, how does that change the debate about who should pay for higher education?

6. Given massive increases in college-going and changes in the composition of college-goers, could our current completion rates be interpreted as an achievement, rather than a failure? What completion rate should we expect, and tolerate, in an even more broadly open system?

These are tough questions, and based on some recent conversations I can tell you that at least a segment of the population is pondering them. But we're pondering quietly, perhaps because where the places these concerns take us are dark ones-- cobwebbed-corners of ambiguity and self-doubt. To make the best policy judgments, however, we need to find our way there and linger, at least a little longer.

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