Our Universities: Academic Welfare

Universities must take responsibility for screening those students who are borrowing money for college.  Tell the truth.  Give potential students the odds. “With this high school GPA, this test score and class rank, the probability of finishing the degree at this university is 30%.  There is a 70% chance that you will have to pay back any loans you take out for school from a high-school graduate’s salary, rather than a college graduate’s salary, and there’s no bankruptcy that will allow you to get away from them.”  Then let people make informed decisions.

 “These subsidies are kind of like propping up the auto industry with cash for clunkers, or the housing industry with cash for first-time buyers,” … “We have this financial aid system that is keeping the system alive.”

Mike Riggs, Reason.com, August 5, 2011


Students are borrowing money at record rates to attend college. 

Yes tuition and fees have risen dramatically.  Yes universities may not be doing enough to reduce costs.  Yes university executives are handsomely paid in most cases, and significantly overpaid in others.  Yes the increase in executive pay far exceeds the increases in faculty and staff pay.  Yes, payrolls at universities are growing in response to patronage and other forms of malfeasance.  Yet, not one of these yeses causes students to borrow money to attend college.

Students borrow money to attend college because they want to, and because it is available.  The forces that contribute to increasing cost are not all under the control of university leadership.

There are ways to economize and achieve goals:  Enroll in a technical school or community college, subscribe to online courses, attend institutions deemed to be less prestigious and less expensive, and graduate with lower debt, maybe no debt at all.  Leave with a degree or certificate that will crack open a door, and then prove ability and value in the workplace so that an employer might pick up the tab for the next phase.  These are economic decisions that cannot be made without regard to individual financial and academic circumstances. 

Universities often provide a form of welfare.  Low-cost housing is available to students.  Day care is provided.  Food is cheap on meal plans.  All students need to do is enroll to  have access to student loans, with new loans available every year, so long as they don’t leave the university community.

Pressured to maintain enrollment, many institutions allow students to remain on campus with grades that do not meet a reasonable standard of progress.  It is sad that the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires steps toward academic progress for student athletes that may exceed general university requirements for satisfactory performance. 

Universities and lenders alike may have convinced themselves of the beneficence of their actions.   Maybe not though – many in the extended community are not buying that argument.  When lenders see the opportunity for bankruptcy-proof loans at above market interest rates, the profit motive may overpower the motive of public service, and the social agenda of producing more college graduates for jobs.  Jobs in fields that provide little promise of gainful employment and self-sufficiency are being married to suffocating debt loads. 

The sole purpose of attaining a degree should not be the utility it provides for a person to earn a living. However, uncollateralized education loans are reminiscent of the housing loans that ravaged the economy in the name of “opportunity.”   It is not the role of government to provide each person a decent place to live, but, instead, to ensure their right to pursue one, likewise, it cannot be the role of government to provide a university education to all. 

To lend to those incapable of attaining a degree or to allow students to continue to borrow when the chances of success approach nil is indefensible without a “buyer beware” warning.  The travesty being played out in a recklessly managed lending environment will haunt people for the rest of their lives.  Ask anyone who has an “underwater” home mortgage… was that opportunity a gift or an albatross?

Vast multitudes of people own “underwater” education mortgages too, in the name of opportunity.

Students under subsidy are in triangular collusion with universities and lenders to gain access to resources that will never yield fruit.

This ugly partnership of deceit must be addressed through academic standards that honestly incorporate the probability of a student’s ultimate success; otherwise a grievous abridgment of the public trust is created. 

The return on investment of a college education, as opposed to mere college attendance, is the real question.  Making decisions about who is qualified to borrow money needs to be central to the responsibility matrix of university leadership, not an afterthought. 

4 thoughts on “Our Universities: Academic Welfare

  1. Ouch, but yes, yes, yes. I recently had a debate in front of one my classes – a graduate student believed that we should admit everyone regardless of qualifications and let them prove themselves. I tried to convince him that this was irresponsible to the students who were very unlikely to succeed as well as to the students who can because it takes resources away from them. He kept trying to convince me (and the other students – who weren’t buying it) that admitting everyone was both compassionate and economically smart. Sigh….

  2. In paragraph six of this essay, one of the statements you make is not correct. Institutions do not allow students to stay on campus with grades that do not meet a reasonable standard of progress. Federal law requires that all universities and colleges check the progress of all students receiving any form of federally-subsidized aid. Many schools apply this standard to state-subsidized aid, too. Three tests are used: 1) At least 67% of attempted classes have to have been completed, 2) A minimum GPA of 2.0 (straight Cs) must be achieved, and 3) Students must be completing their degree at a rate that allows them to finish within the 150% timeframe (six years for a four-year degree) established by the Dept of Education. There is no blanket admission allowed of anyone who walks in the door. Students on conditional admission must be checked every single semester while others who met admission standards are checked annually.

    In the same paragraph, you commented that NCAA rules may exceed academic requirements for general universitiy performance. This is only partially correct. Division I schools set the GPA standard they wish to follow. Division II schools use the 2.0 (straight Cs) GPA — the same as the Dept of Education’s requirement. Division III schools are not required to use a GPA standard at all. (Source: ncaa.org) So, only those Division I universities that choose to set their GPA standard higher than 2.0 actually fit your statement.

    On the whole I agree with your argument about disclosing the facts to the students before they make a decision that affects them for many years. Federally-subsidized loans do survive bankruptcy. Other types of loans do not. Schools should be open about graduation rates. This informaiton is publicly available but I suspect most college students and their families have no idea how to find the data.

  3. Accepting unqualified students is no different than what the banks did by accepting risky mortgage loans (see the movie, Inside Job). We all know how that unfolded. When unbridled profit trumps ethics, rest assured we will see a massive failure in the system.

  4. I read recently that 85% of last years grads (nationwide) returned home to live with Mom and Dad. The average debt these grads leave college with is around $23k. Dr. Wendler is right. Whether he has the particulars of standards and requirements exact is somewhat arbitrary. Kind of like arguing that the house fire was from an outside arsonist versus the homeowner himself cashing in on the insurance.
    Seems like certain universities have a partner in “Pimpology”. The NCAA has wrote the book on it. Research what most of these student athletes are leaving college with. They indeed are not going pro.
    Your only fooling yourself, JKD. Like Michael’s line to the Senator, “We’re both part of the same hypocrisy.” You’ll have to pry a little, but research what university admission standards will be for Fall 2012 at your local university. Funding is now attached to classroom performance. Classic outcome based paradigm. Expect the classes to be dumbed down even more, or plan on tutoring after hours. It’s called Higher Education’s version of No Child Left Behind.
    Crime rates per capita are number 1 year after year in the uniervsity town that I live in as compared to all the other hosting cities of state universities, with one exception. Drive around town, better yet, walk around town. Our college town is crawling with vagrants and thieves. The plan is a scam, and the architects’ behind it will be long gone when the effects of their steroid like injections to this university metastasize.

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