• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Hope Helps

The revived interest in ability to benefit.

October 22, 2014

IHE reported that Senator Patty Murray, of Washington, has proposed a limited reintroduction of the Ability to Benefit rule in the latest draft of the Higher Education Act.

This is one of the better ideas I’ve heard from the Senate. And no, I don’t mean that as damning by faint praise.

Students without high school diplomas really got squeezed by a pincer movement over the last couple of years.  On one side, the old ATB rule -- under which students who lacked either a high school diploma or its equivalent (usually a GED) could get into college if they could demonstrate the ability to benefit through a test score -- was repealed.  On the other side, the GED was made both more expensive and more difficult.  So if you didn’t already have a high school diploma, the GED became considerably more difficult, and the end-run around it was blocked. 

I don’t know that the moves were coordinated, but the effects were mutually reinforcing.  It became much harder for prospective students without diplomas to get into community college.  Some responded by giving up -- it’s probably no coincidence that community college enrollments have dropped nationally since the changes were made.  Other students responded by pouring into Adult Basic Education classes that were never funded to handle the influx.  (At my own college, we responded by substituting the HiSet test for the GED.) 

To the extent that the changes were supported by actual arguments, they derived from success rates. (ATB students graduated at lower rates than diploma students.  To the extent that community colleges are judged on graduation rates, keeping them out actually helped colleges “perform” better under currently popular definitions.)  But here, probably more than anyplace else, it’s important to keep in mind the “access” mission of community colleges.  For people in unstable, low-wage jobs, the prospect of improving your lot through a community college isn’t just one option among others; in a really basic way, it’s a kind of social safety valve.  It’s a concrete cause for hope.  Even if you don’t take advantage of it at a given time, just knowing it’s there for the taking can offer some sense of an alternative future.  Taking it away, and not replacing it with anything, shuts off a safety valve.

Hope serves a crucial social function, even beyond the content of what’s hoped for.  It gives people a reason to keep trying. 

I fully agree with those who argue that higher education should not be the only avenue to the middle class. Some people are able to start their own businesses and do quite well. But if you’re starting with little access to capital and little sense of the rules of the game, it’s a tall order.  Even if your eventual goal is to start your own business, spending some time first learning the basics of the business world can make the path a lot easier.  And not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. 

Saying that college shouldn’t be the only route is very different from saying that it shouldn’t be a route at all. Over the last couple of years, for many people, it has effectively moved out of reach. I can’t help but think that the long-term effects of sustained fatalism can’t be good.

From the IHE piece, it’s unclear how likely the new rules are to be enacted. They have some level of bipartisan support, though, which is encouraging. Even if the HEA has to stay in limbo for a while, ATB may still find its way back.  I certainly hope it will.

So, a tip o’the cap to Senator Murray.  Here’s hoping that enough of her colleagues understand the importance of hope that they sign on.


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