Inside the Higher Education Bubble

Some students are suffering from family or employment problems that make you want to go slap someone around: emotional wreckage from divorces, kids under pressure to work so many hours in family businesses that they don't have time for their studies, employers who refuse to work around class schedules, and insecure men who resent “the little woman” trying to make anything of herself. These students may be wasting resources this semester, but perhaps next semester, they will have straightened out their complicated personal lives.

Then there are students who lack some very basic skills. In a recent discussion of the Pell Grant program, one commenter who described herself as an instructor at a community college suggested that Pell Grants should only be available to “those students who can write a complete sentence.” I have not seen many students who are that deficient. I have seen quite a few who lack the skills that used to be learned in junior high school: correct use of “their” not “there”; the distinction between “it’s” and “its”; that a possessive (“parliament’s”) is not the same as a plural (“parliaments”).  Trying to teach college level skills to students with such serious educational deficiencies is rather like trying to teach calculus to students who have not yet mastered algebra.

Ignorance can be fixed. This is one of our jobs at a community college: to help students who were not at the top of their high school graduating class reach a skill level that makes a four-year school at least possible.

What cannot be fixed is what upsets me: the students who have no intention of passing the class. We are required to take attendance for the first two weeks of each semester, “for financial aid reasons.” No surprise: a lot of financial aid depends on being a full-time student. Every semester, I have students who show up for two weeks -- and never show up again. They do not respond to emails. They do not drop the class. They do get an F. I suspect that they are getting either a grant check, or a student loan -- and this is the reason that they are there for two weeks.

I have other students who show up most of the time. They take quizzes -- but their scores on multiple choice quizzes are so close to the random guess rate that they could not possibly be studying. They turn in no assignments -- or they might turn in one or two out of fifteen. I warn students at the beginning of the semester that even a poor score on an assignment is better than a zero, and that they have no chance of passing the class with a bunch of zeroes. Still, they turn nothing in.

There is a lot of financial aid out there. The Pell Grant program has increased 150% since academic year 2005-6, with federal funding growing from $14.4 billion to $34.4 billion for 2010-11. I hear stories of Pell Grant money being used to buy big screen televisions. Someone I know runs a court-ordered domestic violence treatment program, and offenders sometimes delay paying for the program until their student financial aid checks come in. There is a tsunami of student loan debt being run up by students who either do not care, or do not understand that with a few, very rare exceptions, the only way to avoid repaying that debt is death or total, permanent disability.

This is a bubble. Students who are not serious about college, or who lack such basic skills as the ability to write a five paragraph essay, are not just wasting their own money (if they spend any of their own money at all): they are taking away seats from, and driving up costs for, those students who are ready, willing, and able.

(Also see: "Study: Higher ed bubble could be solved by getting faculty to teach more.")