Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Access and Limits

Aspazia, characteristically, has a thought-provoking post about applied ethics. This time it's about some partial scholarships that her husband's college has extended to some economically challenged students. In essence, the scholarships are enough to make the college seem affordable, but the students still have to work outside of class a significant number of hours to make ends meet. The time suck of those jobs cuts into their study time, and therefore their academic performance. Aspazia asks whether the college is doing these students any favors. As she puts it:

One could argue that the ethical good here is getting these women a college degree, regardless of their G.P.A. or level of mastery of the material (hat tip to SteveG on this). On the other hand, the college is admitting students that they know full well will be unable to really excel or just do average work because they will have to work so many hours to pay for their education. So, they are paying thousands of dollars to the institution and barely passing their classes. I should add that the college is wholly committed to its mission to educate women from impoverished backgrounds and stresses diversity. 45% of their student population is diverse (a statistic that my LAC wishes it could accomplish).

Given that this (and many) institutions simply do not have enough money to give these women full rides, they stick to their mission by giving these partial scholarships that force them to work. Is this really living the commitment to their mission?

I don't usually just hijack discussions wholesale, but since she name-checked me (and lesboprof), I'll take a shot.

My first thought is that whatever else it signifies, a college degree should indicate a meaningful level of academic success – and therefore ability – in a given field. So I reject the “regardless of their GPA or mastery of the material” standard on the grounds that it defeats higher education's reason to exist. If we declare that students without money don't really need to know what they're doing, I'm at a loss to explain just what, exactly, our degrees are supposed to signify at all. And I certainly don't want my medical care in the hands of doctors and nurses who were given degrees regardless of whether they knew what they were doing.

(I'll also admit being jumpy at a line like “45% of their student population is diverse.” So the rest is monolithic? The percentage, I assume, reflects counting individual heads. But diversity, by definition, cannot be a trait of an individual. It's a trait of a group. Either the group is diverse or it isn't; it can't be 45 percent diverse. (I once heard a student declare “I'm diverse!” Uh, no, you're not. You're one person.) I know what she means, but I bristle at the phrasing.)

All of that said, I think the heart of her question – and it's a good one – is what a commitment to access and diversity actually entails, especially in the face of limited resources.

If low-income students are given access to classes, but can only afford to stay in those classes by taking on outside work obligations far beyond what other students have to take, are they being set up to fail?

Ever the administrator, I'll answer with “yes, but.” There are things we can control, and things we can't.

Once, in trying to explain my politics to someone who kept trying to make me into a hippie, I stumbled on the phrase “law and order liberal.” What I meant by that was that I believe that laws should be both fair (the 'liberal') and enforced (the 'law and order'). So don't pass a drinking age of 21 to get alcohol out of high schools, while turning a selectively blind eye to college students. Set the age at 18, and enforce it. Don't set speed limits 10-15 mph below what you actually enforce; set what you mean, and enforce what you set. If you aren't willing to enforce a law, repeal it.

I know that's not always achievable, but it strikes me as a pretty good goal.

For colleges, I'd say pick a level of subsidy you can sustain, and do it right. Instead of bringing in, say, two hundred students, and supporting them almost-but-not-quite-enough, bring in one hundred and do right by them. (Six hours of work-study a week? Okay. Thirty hours of Wal-Mart a week? Not okay.) And in 'doing right,' accept that some will still fail. Some people are drama-prone, and will find ways to find fault with whatever level of help they're given. At some point, you need to be able to say, with a clear conscience, there. This much is what we're willing to do; the rest is up to you. What that level would be in any given setting will vary, and that's fine. (If it were up to me, for example, we'd have some kind of evening child care available for students with jobs and families, and we'd have much better public transportation.) But there's a difference between getting the background conditions to a relatively even level and guaranteeing perfect results. To my mind, if a student has been given a genuinely fair shot and still crapped out, that's on the student.

As a manager of people, I've noticed that the weather is always worse at some people's houses than others', even when it isn't. Some people manage to run into awful traffic every single day, even while their colleagues who take the same routes somehow get to work on time. And some people are just perpetually crabby, no matter how many of their grievances get addressed. You can't control how other people feel, or how they choose to live their lives. You need to decide what institutional conditions need to be addressed so that people with reasonable drive and life skills will have a genuine shot at success, and call it good. There will always be some who will condemn your efforts as inadequate, based on their own life drama, and some will even call you horrible names and question your personal integrity in the process. That's just a cost of doing business. Go for substantial – rather than total – fairness, and you may achieve it. Go for perfection, and I can guarantee heartbreak and failure.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?