Monday, March 20, 2006

Howler of the Year, or, Shame on Tamara Draut

I just finished Strapped, by Tamara Draut (Doubleday, 2005). It’s supposed to be about why 20- and 30- somethings are uniquely disadvantaged in the contemporary economy. She’s not entirely wrong: she correctly notes that housing inflation is hardest on the young, since they didn’t own something in the first place, and she also notes correctly that student loan burdens are higher than they used to be, even after inflation. The double-whammy of housing inflation and increased reliance on student loans puts new entrants into the workforce at a disadvantage, relative to the last few generations.

True so far.

Then, she gets to the details.

Her chapter on higher education starts promisingly, noting that the increased wage premium for bachelor’s degree holders over college grads reflects not higher wages for college grads, but lower ones for high school grads. People go to college to play economic defense. Okay. Then she notes the increased levels of student loan indebtedness of today’s grads, which she traces, correctly, to a combination of rapidly-rising tuition and decreased reliance on grants. So far, so good. Then she gets to community colleges, which enroll nearly half of all college students in the U.S. The subchapter heading is...and I swear, I’m not making this up...

Better Than Nothing: Community College (it’s on page 35)

Astonishingly, she manages to top that on page 36:

“Unlike universities, community colleges aren’t geared solely to the needs of undergraduates.”

Although it’s only March, this is a strong contender for Howler of the Year.

If you’ve ever been to a university, you would have noticed graduate students. You also would have noticed faculty who only teach graduate students, and graduate students who teach undergraduate students. You would have noticed faculty jockeying to avoid lower-level undergrad courses like the plague. You would have noticed gargantuan sums of cash going into football stadiums, and research labs, and student centers with climbing walls.

If you wander around your typical community college, you would find actual faculty teaching lower-level undergraduate courses. You would not find a football stadium. You would not find substantial research labs. You would not find climbing walls. You would also find much lower tuition levels, reflecting the no-frills atmosphere and allowing the non-wealthy to attend.

Draut goes on to complain that it’s a travesty that millions of ‘college-ready’ students are shunted into community colleges, rather than ‘real’ colleges.

This, from someone bemoaning the rise of student loan debt. Give. Me. A. Break.

Although you wouldn’t know it from Draut’s book, many students who start at cc’s transfer to four-year schools upon receiving their associate’s degree (or even before). Our stats show that our grads graduate their four-year schools at higher rates than their own ‘native’ students do, which I suspect is at least somewhat a reflection of how seriously the upper-level schools take intro courses.

(As near as I can tell, cc’s exist in her estimation solely to remediate. Yet, in the real world, we catch flak for remediating too much, and not catering enough to the ‘college-ready’ student. I think she spent too much time in Manhattan.)

In fact, there are states in which the entire public higher education system is built on transfer. In Washington state, for example, the U of Washington doesn’t even teach freshman or sophomore courses. Students are expected to transfer them in from cc’s, and to start as juniors. Of course, to know that, she would have had to have done her research. You know, like they do at universities.

The shame of it is that such catastrophic failures mar what could otherwise be a useful book. The topic of the book as a whole is a good one. The ‘housing bubble’ in the areas where the jobs are puts young people in a bind: go where you can find work but not housing, or go where you can find housing but not work. In my area, house prices have roughly doubled in the last five years, and they were high before that. If I were just breaking in now, I’d be hosed. This is a real problem. Real solutions are hard to imagine. Draut’s book does absolutely nothing to help, and it could actually hurt, if anybody important actually reads it. Shame on Tamara Draut.