Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Not Everyone Should Go To College

But everyone should have the option.

This week’s Twitterverse has featured a series of exchanges about success rates of students with academic preparation gaps, the cost of financial aid, and allegations of throwing good money after bad.  Michael Petrilli in particular is staking out a position that we should stop offering remedial courses altogether, and stop admitting students with preparation gaps, so that they can find other pathways in life in which they’re likelier to be successful, and the rest of us can stop paying for them.

It’s a frustrating discussion, because it conflates a series of issues.  Instead of falling into the “are too -- am not” exchange so familiar to the interwebs, I’ll try to separate the issues involved and assume that everybody means well.

First, the allegation that some of us believe that “everyone should go to college” is a straw man.  I’ve never met anyone who argues for that.  Of course there are plenty of other pathways to choose in life.  It would be silly to argue otherwise.  Adults should be free to choose what they want to do.  If that means jumping directly into starting a business right out of high school, go for it.  If it means joining the military, or going to work, or forming a band and trying to gig around the country, have at it.  

The actual position that many of us in public higher education hold is much more nuanced than that.  We don’t argue that everyone should go to college.  Some people would hate hate hate it, and they have every right to avoid it.  We just argue that everyone should have the option.  If they opt not to -- and many do -- so be it.

In the real world, “having the option” involves more than just allowing people to fill out applications.  It means actually being able to afford to attend, even if their parents are strapped, or absent, or otherwise unable to help.  It means recognizing that some of our high schools don’t do a great job, that “intelligent” and “disabled” are not mutually exclusive, and that most of our predictors of academic success -- even those that work pretty well in the aggregate -- often fail on the individual level.  

The epistemological issue is often elided, but it matters.  We don’t know in advance who will do well and who won’t.  Petrilli’s position assumes that determining talent is a relatively straightforward affair.  If it were, then there might be an argument for cutting losses.  But it isn’t.  That’s part of the reason that four-year colleges have become so welcoming to community college graduates as transfers.  The single best predictor of success in college is...anyone?  anyone?...success in college.  The student who successfully completes an Associate’s degree is a damn good bet for completing the next level as well, even if she started below the college level.  Four-year schools have figured that out, and have increasingly turned to cc’s as farm teams.  Which makes perfect sense.

Open admissions and thoughtful, intentional support are ways of allowing students from all sorts of backgrounds to show us what they’ve got.  Some wash out, some walk away.  But some do much better than their demographics, or high school test scores, would lead us to expect.  Many use what we offer to get better jobs and support themselves and their families.  Many others transfer onward, eventually -- we hope -- also finding opportunities they otherwise would not have found.  

The point is that genuinely open-door institutions -- which includes, but goes well beyond, just having an open admissions policy -- compensate for an epistemological blind spot.  We don’t know who will step up until given a chance.  So let’s give chances.

In the past, we compensated for the epistemological blind spot by using visible categories to stop folks who didn’t fit the mold: racism and sexism were the most obvious versions of that.  Now we know better, at least consciously.  But we still talk about “ability” as if it were as visible, measurable, and definable as height.  It isn’t.  It only shows itself in the performance.

Regular readers know that I have my fair share of critiques of current practices in public higher ed.  But those critiques aren’t based on the idea that some definable segment of the population just isn’t worthy.  They’re based on the fact that we don’t know who is worthy and who isn’t, so we’re better off treating everyone as potentially worthy.  To the extent that our institutional habits and dogma defeat that mission, then we need to change; no argument there.  If financial aid policies put artificial weights on students from certain backgrounds, then let’s change those policies.  If our habits around remediation are actually counterproductive -- an argument to which I’m very, very open -- then let’s change them.  But the goal isn’t to wash our hands of those we know aren’t going to make it.

We don’t know.  Unless we give people the chance to show us, we can’t know.

No, not everyone should go to college.  But I shouldn’t decide who should and who shouldn’t.  Everyone should have the option -- really have the option -- so we don’t miss talent based on prejudice masquerading as toughness.  Given real options, people will find the paths that are right for them.  Some will choose paths far away from college, and that’s their right.  But some will show up shaggy and unkempt, and shock the hell out of us.  That’s why we’re here.  It’s a valuable and worthy mission, and one that would be easy to violate in the name of a superficial rigor.  The real rigor comes in creating, sustaining, and improving an audaciously egalitarian institution in a political culture in which the winds blow cold.  It’s cold outside.  Open the door and let people in.  At our best as a culture, that’s what we do.