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The Twitterverse got itself pretty worked up recently over a quip by a financial analyst who, in the context of evaluating the stock of Corinthian Colleges, implied that “subprime students” were to blame for poor financial performance by the company.

It’s one of those phrases that’s just pithy and absurd enough to catch on.  It’s worth giving some thought.

The analyst, Trace Urdan, argued with David Halperin that the relatively low graduation rates of many for-profit colleges were actually pretty good, when compared to their subsidized competition (community colleges). Halperin countered, correctly, that it’s misleading to characterize most for-profits as unsubsidized, given their heavy reliance on Federal financial aid. But the line that jumped out at me was Urdan’s assertion that “[the] school offers quality instruction. The students make of it what they will.”  If your unit of analysis is the disconnected individual, then it follows that any failures must be the fault of those individuals. If you have low graduation rates, you must have subprime students.

It’s a convenient belief, because it lets everyone else off the hook.  If people rise or fall entirely on their own merits, then those who fell must lack merit. If they lack merit, then their failure is nothing to worry about.  After all, if they had merit, they wouldn’t have failed!

I’ve heard the same argument applied to long-term adjuncts who haven’t found full-time jobs.  If the market is a meritocracy, and the market rejects you, then you must lack merit.

Notice how many “ifs” appear in those sentences.

To be fair to Urdan, he’s assuming a variation on the old weed ‘em out model.  For a long time, that was standard operating procedure in much of higher ed.  The assumption behind weed ‘em out is that some students are, well, weeds, who need to be removed so that others may thrive.  

The only way to make sense of that perspective is to assume that colleges, or the market, amount to black boxes. What happens in the college makes little difference.  Students arrive with merit or not, and they’ll find their own level.  And merit is either inborn or formed so early, and so mysteriously, that questioning it is pointless.  

In other words, it’s epistemologically arrogant.  It assumes that we already know everything we need to know about both education and success; all that’s left is to let the sorting happen.

But we don’t.  Anyone on the ground knows that students will surprise you.  Placement tests do a markedly poor job of predicting student success, and we see students defy demographics all the time.  And those of us who work in colleges know that they aren’t just black boxes.  Some practices lead to greater student success than others.  The folks who assume that merit is somehow innate tend either to ignore that, because it’s inconvenient, or to attack success efforts as somehow distorting the market.  It’s as if we’re debasing the currency.

The currency metaphor, of course, is at the root of the “subprime” metaphor.  Subprime mortgages were loans that went bad because they were made to people who couldn’t pay them off, whether because of job loss, market shifts, or because the loan never should have been made in the first place.  The point of the metaphor is to suggest that as with mortgages, some people just aren’t worth the investment.

So the upshot from the analyst is that the for-profit college is worth the investment, but the students aren’t.

I’ll propose a different measure.  What do the for-profits offer that community colleges (or other non-profits) don’t?  Assuming that they draw from the same general pool of students, what value do they add that justifies their premium cost?  (And for those of us in the cc world, what can and should we learn from them?)  Let’s assume that student ability is the unknown, and that different institutions have established different track records of success in developing it.  Those that don’t pre-screen for likelihood of success -- through selective admissions -- have similar challenges.  Let’s look at the ones that handle that challenge well.

No, the students aren’t subprime. The analysis is.

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