Here is a new trend: college for people who can't read or write. And no, that doesn't mean the one out of three freshmen whose literacy and numeracy skills are so poor that they have to take remedial courses before they are deemed ready to do college-level work. It means students who literally can't read or write because they are severely cognitively impaired by Down syndrome or some other mental disability. Yet an increasing number of campus administrators have decided that even the "intellectually disabled" (as this group is now called) deserve a college education.There is a school of thought that a high-end university is summer camp, and 250 institutions providing internships for counseling majors as well as an opportunity for the unlucky sibling in a rich family to spend some time on campus probably isn't the end of higher education as we know it: the subprime side of the land grants, mid-majors, community colleges, and proprietaries does more damage.
Well, not exactly a college education, since even the most egalitarian administrators concede that people with severe cognitive disabilities can't handle even the most rudimentary of course offerings. Instead, what a host of new programs for the intellectually disabled offer is what the people who run them call "a college experience."
Some 250 campuses around the country offer such courses. Students enrolled in the programs sit in on a class or two per semester that regular students are taking for credit, but they don't receive grades, and their assignments are drastically tailored to fit their limited abilities. Batteries of counselors and tutors (the latter are typically volunteers from the regular student population) help them through, and they fill up the rest of their time with "life skills" seminars and workshops designed to help them use a debit card, take the bus, or get through a job interview, with internships at participating nonprofits, and, presumably, with making friends and soaking up the ivy-covered atmosphere. They don't receive actual college degrees---indeed, according to the U.S. Department of Education, no student enrolled in any college program for the intellectually disabled has to date received even a two-year associate degree---but if they complete their programs in a process that can take years, they typically receive certificates of completion that they can show to prospective employers.
Such sentimental linguistic trafficking in "dreams and aspirations" and "a college experience" in contrast to actual college can be viewed as a harmless if expensive exercise in philanthropy by university administrators---although it does help dilute the value and meaning of a college education, already threatened by grade inflation and the collapse of core curricula. It would be more honest to describe the programs as charity rather than college. The programs may also do some psychological good for the ultra-select group of people they serve (the Vanderbilt program, for example, enrolls only five students at a time). They also likely teach the volunteer tutors and classmates of the cognitively impaired important lessons in compassion for their less fortunate fellow human beings. But it is hard to assess their practical value. Although advocates cite studies showing that intellectually disabled students who complete some sort of postsecondary education earn 1.7 times more per week than their peers who receive no postsecondary education, no students or administrators interviewed by the Chronicle or other newspapers pinpointed any specific better-paying jobs offered to enrollees in the programs. One cannot help but wonder whether the programs simply help cognitively impaired students coast along at their parents' (or university) expense in a respectable academic setting instead of going to work at the low-prestige jobs for which their limited abilities qualify them.That last sentence might also explain the 1.7 times weekly earnings. The column notes that subsidies and litigation are coming.
A recent article on the US News website about such programs was followed by angry comments from parents of intellectually disabled students taking issue with critics who questioned the programs' usefulness or propriety.What the comments also indicate is a lack of understanding about the benefits of technical progress. The monotony of the assembly line made individuals who couldn't carry a patternmaker's water productive enough to be able to buy a house in the patternmaker's neighborhood. During flush economic times, the counter help at fast food joints is more likely to be from the vocational service. Smart cash registers make people who otherwise would be relegated to pushing a broom more productive. I suspect additional improvements are possible.
"Should [my daughter] work at Walmart and live below the poverty level for the rest of her life?" wrote one mother. Wrote another: "Why should [my daughter] have to wait on me at McDonald's"? Those comments said a lot---about upper-middle-class disdain for honest but entry-level service work and about the kind of employment for which those with severe cognitive disabilities can realistically qualify even with the best of "life-skills" coaching on a college campus. Such are the perils of deciding to offer a "college experience," or indeed college itself, to people who lack the intellectual qualifications to benefit from higher education.
Those improvements are less likely to be forthcoming if higher education fails to offer ordinary students the intellectual challenges that might develop their talents in such a way as to invent those improvements.