“The students at the top of the distribution are going up and the students at the bottom of the distribution are going down,” Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told The Wall Street Journal. “There is a widening of the gap between higher and lower-ability students.”The highest ability students are forting up at the U. S. News approved enclaves. The devil take the hindmost, warns Adam Tyner in Real Clear Education.
But while we often focus on the elites, only a small fraction of students actually attend this type of hyperselective institution, and those enrolling in less selective institutions face an altogether different dilemma: what will happen after enrollment? Roughly half of students who enroll in college fail to complete, and the resulting waste drains public resources and can seriously harm students’ lives.How bad is it? Bad enough that people in the trenches are suggesting it's time to do something else.
Under open access policies, students can access financial aid irrespective of prior academic achievement, and colleges and universities enroll many students who are unlikely to complete their degree programs. Sure, everyone who goes to college will face challenges; earning a bachelor’s degree is not supposed to be easy. But for students who haven’t demonstrated college readiness by earning good grades or good scores on college entrance exams, the statistics are bleak.
As you can see in the figure below, as enrollment has increased to nearly 70 percent in recent years, college completion rates and, relatedly, college readiness indicators are stuck below 40 percent of the adult population. Millions of students are enrolling in college despite not being prepared for the academic rigor of higher education. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli calls this the “readiness gap,” and it is persistent. Under open access, colleges admit these academically underprepared students, but many end up in a kind of worst case scenario: with debt from college, but without a college degree.
(Remediation is supposed to solve the readiness problem, but it is usually insufficient, and it is costing us a fortune.)
Consistently poor college completion rates for academically unprepared students have prompted calls to raise admission requirements and limit access to financial aid. In their book “Community Colleges and the Access Effect,” two community college professors argue that open access policies are leading to declining academic rigor and, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, they advocate “demanding more of students before granting them access to financial aid.” Likewise, Mr. Petrilli calls on higher education institutions to “stop admitting students who are far from ready to succeed in college.”That runs contrary to all the ways U. S. practitioners of higher education believe in second chances. The place to demand more of students, though, is in kindergarten.
Although the professors and Mr. Petrilli raise valid concerns about threats to academic standards and the dangers of the readiness gap, tightening access to admission and financial aid in this way would necessarily limit opportunities for many disadvantaged students who are capable of turning their academic careers around. Since students have strong individual incentives not to waste their own time and money, restricting access is probably not the best mechanism to stimulate better completion rates.
The ultimate goal must be increasing completion through greater readiness, meaning that signals must come early enough for students to make the changes that will enable success. Middle schools and high schools can continue encouraging a can-do attitude towards academics while giving students strong quantitative signals of their readiness along the way. Getting students’ families clued in to the challenges they are likely to face in college may also stimulate political pressure to create more alternative pathways for students who need options other than pursuit of the bachelor’s degree.Yes, and let's get the taxpayers on board with no longer having to pay for high school twice. Particularly, let's get the taxpayers on board if a future Democrat president and Congress mandate free college for at least some people. Here's Matthew M. Chingos of Brookings, with the social science. "Using nationally representative data on in-state students at public institutions, I find that students from higher income families would receive a disproportionate share of the benefits of free college, largely because they tend to attend more expensive institutions." Go there if you want the supporting details, the qualifying remarks, the general equilbrium considerations, and the suggestions for future research. No lack of good political economy questions. We can summarize it in Mrs Clinton's campaign line about Donald Trump's kids being able to afford college. The problem, whether it's a subsidy for everybody, or a subsidy for kids from straitened circumstances, is that somebody among the two-thirds of high school graduates who isn't college ready isn't going to have a shot at an upper middle-class job, and that's true with or without student loans.