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Colleges: First They Flunk You, Then They Sue You


Young people have heard time and time again that going to college is the key to success in life. But this can only work if you graduate, and many don’t manage to do it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 47 percent of low-income college students manage to graduate from a four-year institution within six years.

In Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, a new book based on five years of research, professors Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton argue that the structure of many universities disadvantages low-income students. Despite widespread recognition that many high school grads aren’t ready for college-level work, colleges continue to accept them without provisions to bring them up to speed and help them navigate academically. The New York Post reports:

Higher education also fails working-class kids by not giving them the guidance they need. The one working-class girl who did graduate in the Armstrong-Hamilton study was a young woman who was put into a special program where she received “comprehensive advising.”…More affluent students have parents who can help them figure out how to get through college — what courses to take, and when; how to manage time, get help or mercy from professors, etc….

But “intensive advising” is vanishingly rare in college today. Indeed, the whole college experience is designed around the idea that students already know what’s best for them. Schools just hand freshmen catalogs with hundreds of pages worth of seemingly unrelated courses, and the freedom to choose among them.

Colleges may skimp on the advising services many students need, but they have no problem taking their money—and some are going to great lengths to make sure they are paid in full. Minnesota Daily reports that a growing number of schools have begun to file suit against students who default on their Perkins loans, federal student loans earmarked for needy students. The University of Pennsylvania filed 12 law suits against students who defaulted on their Perkins loans in 2012, and Yale University has sued former students as well. The University of Minnesota refused to state whether it has sued former students, but it can withhold transcripts if a student has unpaid loans.

This would be bad enough for students who graduated, but it’s likely that some did not: Remember that Perkins loans go to lower-income students, for whom graduation rates are lower. For these students, this is the worst of both worlds. They leave college without a degree but with the debt that comes with it, and with their former school hounding them in court for the unpaid balance. Once again, America is eating its young.

[Mortar boards image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Andrew Allison

    Is it not clear that admission requirements need to be significantly toughened in order to spare students not suited for baccalaureate degrees?
    Speaking from personal experience; the ones who are suited but not yet ready will get there later.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    “bring them up to speed and help them navigate academically.”
    Um . . . shouldn’t there be some kind of feedback loop from colleges to the high schools that graduate these inferior students, esp. minority-heavy schools? Minorities seem to expect everyone else to accept their poor performance, indeed to standardize on it, rather than bring the minority students up to snuff. It ought to be part of the assessment of the public high schools’ effectivity that the colleges to which their graduates are shunted critique the high school instructors’ efforts.

    • Andrew Allison

      I propose it (admission requirements) below.

      • Corlyss Drinkard

        Well, that’s two of us . . . .

  • three_chord_sloth

    The truly bizarre part of this story is the failure to advise these students. Our colleges have done nothing for the past forty years but boost the numbers of non-teachers on their payrolls. If they’re not teaching and they’re not advising, just what they heck are all these expensive employees doing there?

    • Andrew Allison

      Feeding at the “if you’re breathing and have funding, we’ll take you” trough.

  • skhpcola

    I attended both of my local 4-year schools in my quest for a graduate degree and was well-advised throughout those 6 years. That might be the exception, rather than the rule, but from what I saw, you can scarcely take a class without justifying why you desire to do so.

    Of course, I also met my share of people with no aptitude for higher education that degraded the experience for all. One way is by the grade inflation and lowered standards necessary to keep these folks in school through graduation. I knew students in grad school that were barely literate and many were innumerate. Says a lot about why a Master’s degree isn’t worth what it used to be.

  • RedWell

    I generally agree (though I always assumed that figuring out and navigating the process was part of the education). However, VM has also lamented that higher ed is overloaded with administrators and administrative costs, such as student advisers and other programs to improve retention. Which one is it: helping working-class students or streamlining costs?

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