• 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.


It Isn’t That Simple, But It Should Be

Community college students and loans.

January 21, 2019

A new study on community college student loans’ effects on student achievement finds that students who are advised of the availability of loans are likelier to take them than students who aren’t; that they’re likely to take more credits; they’re likely to have higher GPA’s; and they’re several times likelier to transfer on to four-year colleges. So it should be a no-brainer, right?

The study, by Benjamin Marx of the University of Illinois and Lesley Turner of the University of Maryland, took place at a large urban community college with lower-than-average graduation rates. It was a randomized control trial, so the differences could not be explained by self-selection. In other words, whatever differences occurred between the two groups could not be explained by one group having more wherewithal/social capital/guidance than the other. The study was designed to isolate a variable, to the extent that social science experiments can.

At one level, I find the study heartening. It confirms that what holds many students back isn’t lack of talent, or lack of drive, but lack of money.  (That’s nothing Sara Goldrick-Rab hasn’t been saying for years, but confirmation is always welcome.) Lack of money is distracting in itself.  It also leads to other distractions, like working too many hours for pay, losing sleep, spending too much time in transit, and even homelessness.  Students who are able to meet their basic needs in a relatively secure way are more able to focus on their studies.

The study’s summary notes, too, that loans are a relatively cheap form of aid from the government’s perspective, because most of them get paid back. 

I don’t disagree with any of that, and yet, I’m wary of recommending that my college get fully on board. My concerns are twofold, one minor and one major.

The minor one, noted in the writeup, is that students who borrowed more were likelier not to return to the community college the following year.  That’s apparently because many of them transferred “upward” before bothering to graduate. As the Jack Kent Cooke report issued last week noted, that’s common; most community college students who transfer “upward” don’t bother graduating the community college first.  As far as our graduation rate is concerned, those students count as dropouts. To the extent that community colleges are routinely judged on retention and graduation rates, encouraging more students to leave early would be self-defeating.

I consider that a minor objection, though, because it’s an artifact of statistics.  A more reasonable gauge of success would include transfer upwards. That’s what the students want to do, and it’s what benefits society broadly.  If they do a freshman year at a cc to get their land legs, then move on and graduate with a bachelor’s, I don’t see that as us failing. It just gets frustrating having to explain that over and over again.

The more serious objection is that community colleges are held accountable for loan default rates.  That’s insane, if you think about it. Loans are an entitlement under federal law, and we don’t get to choose our students; as far as loan issuing is concerned, we’re a pass-through.  But somehow, we’re the ones on the hook if “too many” students default. Responsibility without authority is baked into the program design.

Spreading awareness of the availability of student loans to students who need them but don’t know that they’re eligible raises the very real prospect of a subsequent spike in our default rates. Even if the newly affected cohort does better than it otherwise would have, if it does worse (in terms of repayment) than the existing group of borrowers, we could lose eligibility for all federal financial aid. We could endanger our existence simply by doing the right thing.

Again, from a policy perspective, this seems a simple fix; instead of asking students to borrow more, it would be more fair, sustainable, and efficient to give both colleges and students more upfront grant aid.  Allow colleges the resources to provide the student services that the actual students we actually have actually need. And give students the money they need so they can be students, rather than trying desperately to pack thirty hours into a day to make ends meet. Lest that sound otherworldly, it’s what America did just a generation ago, and it’s what most other industrialized countries do now. Globally, it’s much more common than our model. It makes much more sense.

Failing that, if we could at least get the accountability measures right, that would help.  Community colleges shouldn’t be punished for students moving up “too fast.” And as long as they’re obligated by statute both to accept everybody and to offer loans as entitlements, judging them by default rates doesn’t make a lick of sense.  I know it’s a proxy for quality, but it’s a terrible proxy for quality. If you want to measure quality, look at student learning, performance at subsequent transfer institutions, and employment outcomes.

Until then, though, I predict limited uptake on the findings of the study, and that’s a shame.  When the best interests of students conflict with the best interest of colleges, something has gone fundamentally wrong.  


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