Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Snob colleges v. slob colleges

According to the NY Times, colleges are placing an increasingly large emphasis on admitting applicants who are able to pay tuition without financial aid, a practice which will surely have no negative effects on social  mobility or the prosperity of the middle class. 

Some of this is likely in response to recession-induced funding shortages, but I'd like to think it also represents a reaction to the ever-rising tide of student loan debt swamping American college grads.  It's hard not to wonder how many lives universities have derailed by suggesting that "It's a lot of money, but with this new degree, you can pay it all back!"

Of course, that leaves colleges stuck between a rock and a hard place.  One on hand, it's irresponsible to encourage cash-strapped students to apply to expensive degree programs.  On the other, it's unconscionable to give the wealthy a shortcut into higher education, while forcing the rest of us to duke it out for limited scholarship funds. 

What's the solution?  I don't know.  (It sure isn't student loan forgiveness.)  I'm drawn to the idea of "flattening" the post-secondary education system, by which I mean changing the emphasis from the creation and promotion of unique and storied institutions to supporting the enormous network of mid-sized local and regional colleges already in place across the country.  With less money riding on national reputation and less time spent in the cultural spotlight, these schools seem better situated to do the hard work of figuring out how to best provide good educations at an acceptable cost.  And they're better candidates for public subsidy, too: the money goes further and their graduates are already somewhat less likely to pay off debt incurred in college.

The snobs and the savants can still have their Yales and Harvards, of course.  But I see no reason that society should model all its post-secondary institutions after a handful of elite universities.  Whatever social value accrues from the obsessive cultivation of somber academic fora, it's more than counteracted by the social cost of pricing the general public out of the ivory tower altogether.

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