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In grad school, I had a beater of a car that I didn’t drive much. I would routinely go several days without driving it, since I could walk to most of the places I needed to go. A roommate’s girlfriend once asked me why I bothered keeping it at all. I told her that just knowing it was there kept me from feeling trapped. I didn’t have to drive it every day, but I knew that I could.  Sometimes, that was enough.

I thought again of that conversation in reading this exchange about targeting financial aid. Should financial aid be directed only at the students most likely to succeed?

The idea makes sense if your priority is “efficiency.” Taken in the aggregate, some students are likelier to graduate smoothly than others. If the goal is to get the cost-per-degree as low as possible, then directing financial aid only to the students with the fewest strikes against them makes sense. 

But that’s the wrong goal.  And that’s why I get twitchy when discussions of higher education reduce it to an assembly line for stamping hands. 

Open-door public colleges exist to give people options.  Some people will take maximum advantage of those options in quick and obvious ways.  Some will take longer.  Some will take left turns.  Some will take other paths.  It’s possible to use data to predict, in the aggregate, which groups will tend to graduate at higher rates than others.  (I had to grimace when I read a few days ago that SAT scores now correlate so tightly with family income that they’ve become useless as independent variables.  That should not be.)  But anyone who has spent time in a community college or similar place knows multiple stories of students who succeeded beyond what their demographics would have predicted.  We live for that.

Discovering buried treasure is rewarding, but it’s “inefficient” in the short term. Some students take a little while to find their grooves.  Some follow blind alleys.  Any system that serves large numbers of students like that will require a certain amount of tolerance for risk. At their best, community colleges create environments in which students whom the data would consider longshots can surprise everybody. 

If we continue to squeeze resources to the point that risk tolerance goes away, then so will the openness to longshots.  And I don’t think we’ve thought through what that means.

On a systemic level, higher education cannot, by itself, be the country’s entire jobs policy.  But for people who start in modest circumstances, college remains the best bet available.  “Remains” is the key word in that sentence.  Unionized, well-paid blue collar jobs are much scarcer than they used to be, and many of those that still exist survive only with “tiered” contracts in which new workers get permanently lower pay than people hired years ago.  Startups are great, but they’ll never be for everybody.  Middle-class salaried positions are hard to capture without some sort of degree.  (They can be hard even with a degree, for that matter.)  Deciding to take a chance on an inexpensive public college can be the best available option.

Take that option away, whether explicitly or just through continued austerity, and what do we expect people in modest circumstances to do?

Hope matters. Tangible, legible, accessible opportunity -- even if it’s difficult -- offers a reason for hope. It suggests a reward for trying. The absence of opportunity can lead to an absence of hope. And that doesn’t lead anywhere good at all.

Yes, providing second chances will always be a little bit messy.  It will cost some money and time, and not every longshot will come in. But the function of opportunity goes beyond whether everybody succeeds.  Just having the option matters. That’s part of what’s missing from the conversation. The presence of second chances brings hope.  Remove that hope, and the loss will be far greater than some leak in a pipeline.  Direct aid only to those who fit the traditional mold, and you’re telling everyone else that they’re locked out. Take away the car, and the walking that used to feel virtuous suddenly feels like punishment. 

Efficiency is fine, if we know what we’re actually trying to do. What we’re trying to do is so much more than just enabling grocery runs.  Let’s not focus so narrowly that we forget that.

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