I came out of the closet on twitter today with an idea I’ve had for some time. Part of being a junior scholar is learning what ideological wars you don’t have the gravitas to wade into. The hyper-focus on degree completion and persistence is one of those. But since the cat is out of the proverbial bag, I will own this one.
Degree completion is a good thing. I will say this and many will still ignore it but I’m just covering my bases here.
Degree completion is a good thing. Persistence is a good thing. Sticktoitiveness is a good thing.
But the real thing is that, for some students, being able to move in and out of college over time is a net positive and a defining benefit of our structure of higher education.
The many entry points of our higher education system is fairly unique among education systems in core nations. In what sociologists call rigid structures of opportunity like those in the UK, there are few entry points. You take a national exam, you place into a college track, you do it right or you fail out and you are never let back into the pipeline.
By contrast, the U.S. system can seem like a sprawling mess. You can fail out of high school, get a GED, fail out your first semester of community college, discover your love of continental philosophy at a Burning Man festival a decade later, transfer into a degree completion program, slay your GREs and get a PhD from Harvard.
It’s not a common story, sure, but it possible and that is because of the many points at which one can enter, leave, and re-enter our system of highered.
One of the rarely discussed consequences of the high cost of college for some students is that debt can effectively calcify a system whose flexibility is a strength. I think particularly of the kinds of students left behind after “churn and burn” institutional strategies like those employed by for-profits have churned and burned a path through college aspirations that would shame Sherman.
When you are more likely to be exposed to risk factors that making completing college more difficult — you are poor, you are a single mother, you are a first generation American — you are more likely to attend a for-profit college. You are also most likely to do so as “traditional” student or as one without credits from other colleges. That means you are more likely to pay full tuition for a college degree program in the most expensive sector of higher education. This is further exacerbated by the retail-wholesale difference between for-profits and traditional colleges. That basically means that for-profit college tuition is rarely reduced by institutional grants, state grants, and the like. So for-profit students tend to pay retail while traditional college students at schools with comparable sticker tuition prices rarely pay full price, ergo they pay wholesale.
So there you are with all those risk factors you started with and you do what many students in for-profits do: you drop out or stall out or take a year or so off.
Only your debt load is pretty high and you weren’t equipped for debt payments to begin with because, again, remember risk factors. So you maybe default or get behind on payments. You cannot transfer with defaulted student loans. To protect the integrity of the federal aid system, almost no college will grant you entry with a defaulted loan.
Or, let’s say you don’t default. But you are more likely to approach loan limits because, again, wholesale v. retail. So, your options for transferring or dropping back in when your life circumstances allow are effectively reduced to nil.
What happens in these scenarios? What is the social cost when a higher education system that is designed to maximize on the vicissitudes of our economic system by allowing for multiple entry points is compromised by “churn and burn” institutional practices that disproportionately impact the very marginalized groups who are most likely to benefit from the open-ness of that system?
Well, no one is asking but me that I know of.
And that’s a shame.
Because by setting the price of failure so high we effectively compromise the spirit of public good that drives our hyper focus on access and persistence. Maybe “failure” isn’t the problem as much as the current price of failure. Indeed, there’s an argument that “failure”as we increasingly define it — stopping out, time off, transferring — isn’t failure at all but a sign that our system is working as it should. The real failure would be undermining that functioning by subsidizing corporate educational profits at the expense of individuals.
It’s a problem we’ve yet to reckon with and I think the time will come when we will have no choice but to do so.