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Yesterday’s post about students who do better in college the second time around generated some terrific responses. Many of them revolved around drive. Many who were sick of school at 18, and whose first attempts at college very much reflected that, came back with fire in the belly a few years later and forged impressive academic careers. Other stories included references to mental illness setting in during the late teen years, and, of course, economic factors. Some of the stories were told with remarkable sensitivity; I was honored to be entrusted with them.

I couldn’t help but notice the contrast with the bloodless report on “some college, no degree” adults described on Thursday. There, college was presumed to be an unalloyed good, and dropping out was assumed to represent some sort of failure or tragedy.

In describing our own motives and stories, it’s relatively easy to be nuanced. In referring to other people, especially in large numbers, much of that nuance falls away. The complicated other minds are reduced to data points.

But other minds are just as complicated as our own.

I say this fully aware that I’ve used statistics to make arguments, both here and on campus. As the saying goes, data is not the plural of anecdote; each offers insight the other can’t. An unrepresentative anecdote can mislead; good data can help distinguish between an illustrative case and an outlier. And a good qualitative understanding of context can help distinguish between helpful questions and irrelevant ones, or even suggest unmeasured intervening variables.

When budgets are enrollment driven and enrollment is declining, it’s easy for administrators to obsess over numbers (and for everyone else to assume, after a while, that admins are just doing their best impressions of Chicken Little. That assumption is sustainable until it isn’t.) There’s payroll to meet and bills to pay; if those things get neglected, the whole place suffers. When I worked in for-profit higher ed, I saw students treated frankly as cash cows; the level of it was so disgusting that I jumped at the first opportunity to get out. Other minds were reduced to inputs.

The idea behind public higher education, as opposed to private or for-profit, was to treat education as a public good. That entails, among other things, regarding students as more than just tuition payers. A student who has to go on a sort of vision quest before returning isn’t a failure, and the institution from which they walked away isn’t a failure, either. The same holds with the student who had a family crisis, a mental health crisis or a job loss. As we’ve shifted more of the cost of college onto students, colleges (and people who watch them) increasingly regard those as lost customers. But in autobiographical accounts, the fallacy of that label quickly becomes clear. Simply being there as an option for eventual return is a service.

If college is more than transactional, then its budget needs to be more than transactional, too. If public funding is sufficiently high and reliable that colleges can afford to treat students as the complicated people they are, with the dignity they deserve, we all win. Keep the college fully staffed when the economy is good and enrollments are down so it can absorb the demand when the next recession hits. Keep its quality level up so it remains a viable option even when some folks are at other stages of their journeys.

The more transactional the budget, the more short-term the focus. Other minds are reduced, by necessity, to revenue sources. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that reported levels of student anxiety on campuses are higher than in the past, given that recent high school grads’ experiences of school were in the austerity-driven postrecession era. They’ve absorbed cuts, and competed on standardized exams, at levels that most wealthy countries would find barbaric. Most of that was the result of a series of conscious choices. Those choices could be made differently.

A student who wandered away from college at 19, worked low-paid jobs for several years and then returned to forge an impressive career shows up in our IPEDS stats as a dropout. We get publicly shamed for that. But we didn’t fail. We provided chances, serially, for people to build the lives they wanted to build. We know that individually. We should know that collectively, too.

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