There is a pattern of dishonesty taking place in some of the criticism of for-profit colleges. Too frequently, opponents of the sector take advantage of students and use an individual as a “straw man” to try to prove a point about student debt and tuition.
It is an attack by anecdote. Or more precisely, attack by false and partial anecdote.
The latest example is a filing from the Education Trust on the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed “gainful employment” (GE) rule. The rule would impose strict loan default and debt-to-earnings standards on private-sector colleges that would close the door to higher education opportunities for hundreds of thousands of minority and low-income students.
In their filing, the Education Trust references by first name an anonymous student from Kaplan University, using a quote from her as firsthand evidence of someone allegedly burdened by debt because of high tuition.
We know the student’s full story -- and, not surprisingly, the allegation is untrue. The quote claims that “tuition … ate up” the student’s financial aid. In reality, Kaplan University’s average actual cost is less than most private, nonprofit colleges and many tax-supported public institutions. This student came to Kaplan with significant debt incurred elsewhere -- including a nonprofit institution whose tuition is significantly greater than ours.
It was also alleged that we “maxed out her loans.” In reality the Education Department requires institutions to allow students to borrow up to the maximum amount for which they qualify. To cover personal expenses, students can take on debt far in excess of what is needed for tuition. Under the law, we cannot limit this. Particularly in non-residential, adult-serving institutions, these dollars do not stay with us -- the funds go to the student to cover his or her living expenses. Student academic success, such as the need to repeat failed courses, will also impact total cost and debt.
Sometimes, purveyors of these testimonials disclose full names. When a group calling themselves the “Young Invincibles” took to Capitol Hill last month to talk about student debt, it brought along 28-year-old Dymond Blackmon, who said he had incurred $90,000 in debt from pursuing an associate degree. Flanked by four U.S. senators, he said he did not make enough money to pay back loans from his photography program. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, the institution Blackmon attended had tuition and fees of $14,000 a year. Clearly, there’s more to the story than the tuition charged by his institution.
For most students, completing college takes a lot of work and often does not go as planned. Some students take on debt at multiple institutions, need to repeat courses extending their course of study, or borrow more than needed. These details are rarely acknowledged, and those that put the spotlight on these individuals know the schools are prohibited by law from discussing a student’s details and, to protect our students, we are loath to do so.
Student loan debt is a problem. But solving it will require more than finger-pointing.
Policy should permit schools to limit loans for a particular course of study, helping us align debt with expected earnings in the field. College can be made more affordable if student loans are managed, in part, by people who share a big stake in seeing their students succeed -- the schools in which they enroll.
Using misleading anecdotes may be a clever way to make an argument, but it doesn’t help illuminate the issue. Permitting colleges to help manage borrowing is the real issue here, and it is no straw man.
A recent Gallup-Purdue study on the relationship between student experiences in college and later job satisfaction concludes that what matters is not “where you go” but “how you do” college. According to the report, students who participate in what the authors term the “winning combination” -- research projects, extracurricular activities, internships and close relationships with faculty -- are more highly engaged in their jobs after college. What the authors fail to acknowledge, however, is the fact that how students “do” college is often governed by pre-existing inequalities that our higher education system does little to ameliorate.
The report glosses over the reality that students from low-income families tend to cluster in less-prestigious public colleges and universities. These institutions often have scarce resources, resulting in high student-faculty ratios and fewer opportunities for students to engage in the ways that appear to correlate with later job satisfaction.
Even at colleges with bountiful resources and a low faculty-student ratio, however, students from higher-income families are more likely to participate in activities that increase college engagement. Such students are far more likely to have contacts at the college and to feel comfortable building relationships with faculty. Lower-income students, on the other hand, often face barriers -- including the need to work -- that make it difficult for them to pursue college experiences that might help them in later life.
Beyond these structural impediments, low-income students face a problem that is more nebulous and difficult to address: cultural mismatch. Often, students from working-class backgrounds interpret the differences between their background and the middle-class norms they encounter at college as signifying that they do not belong. As Paul Tough recently chronicled in a New York Times Magazine article, these students often experience feelings of discomfort, inadequacy and exclusion, which hinders their ability to make meaningful connections with faculty, staff and peers.
Even when working-class and first-generation students partake in extracurricular activities, or meet with faculty or staff, they struggle to achieve the same benefits as their more affluent peers. My research indicates that participating in study groups and extracurricular activities, meeting with staff and socializing with faculty does not improve the GPA and persistence of low-income students, but does result in significant returns in those areas for students from higher-income families.
Why the benefits of these experiences accrue so lopsidedly is difficult to parse: one reason may be that higher-income students are better-able to leverage opportunities that arise when interacting with faculty. A recent study finding that professors were less inclined to respond to emails from female or minority students hints at another partial explanation: biases may undermine the usefulness of interactions with faculty for low-income students.
Regardless of what causes the disparate effects, colleges must acknowledge that a range of impediments prevents low-income college students from participating in and benefiting from meaningful extracurricular activities and relationships. They should assess the range of non-classroom activities available -- such as student government, student-led publications, and intramural sports -- and consider whether these opportunities should be structured differently to maximize accessibility and value for students from less advantaged backgrounds.
The “University Leadership Network” at the University of Texas -- highlighted in the New York Times article -- is an example of a program that arose from such purposeful consideration. The program is designed to both deeply engage low-income students in the kinds of activities that Gallup-Purdue correlates with later job satisfaction, and to simultaneously quell feelings of inadequacy.
While they are not a cure-all for the reproduction of inequality in American higher education, these kinds of wrap-around supports may be necessary for low-income and first generation college students to reap the same benefits from the “winning combination” of college experiences that more advantaged students already enjoy. Paired with larger policy changes to eliminate structural barriers to college access and completion, they offer a promising tool to improve equity.
Lauren Schudde is a research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
A core purpose of remedial education is to provide all students with a real opportunity for college success, regardless of their skill level or academic background. Inside Higher Ed recently published opinion pieces with different takes on the best ways to design remedial programs. This exchange between Stan Jones of Complete College America and Hunter Boylan of the National Center for Developmental Education is a welcome sign. We are concerned, however, that an important consideration has been largely undervalued in the current conversation. Students assigned to remedial education in college are not a uniform group, and the colleges they attend are far from homogenous. Treating them as such masks important differences in opportunity and achievement due to differences in students’ prior academic preparation, incoming skill level, age, race, income and status as first-generation college students.
Students who start in developmental education, particularly those at the lowest levels, face significant obstacles that frequently lead to gaps in educational opportunity and achievement down the road. While there has been considerable rhetoric about the existence of these gaps on the front end, there has been surprisingly little data used to show how the solutions being put forward today would actually address these inequities in the long run. Reform efforts that neglect to address these disparities only threaten to perpetuate them. We support extending the current conversation on reform efforts in developmental education to include four critical considerations:
1. An explicit focus on closing opportunity gaps for students. Opportunity gaps arise when students have different degrees of access to college programs in high school, and these opportunities vary according to a variety of factors, such as school quality and academic preparation. Opportunity gaps are the first step in closing achievement gaps nationwide, yet they are almost never referenced in reports of developmental education reform. Jobs for the Future’s Early College Expansion report provides one example of how closing postsecondary opportunity gaps can be done, and highlights linkages between opportunity gaps and achievement gaps for various groups of students. Starting college while still in high school has been shown to have a significant impact on college enrollment, retention and success for a wide range of student populations. Expanding these opportunities to all high schools and all students, including at-risk students, is one of the most critical steps in closing achievement gaps and fulfilling the completion agenda.
2. An explicit focus on closing achievement gaps for students. The Lumina Foundation recently issued its annual report, A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education, which highlighted persistent college degree attainment gaps by race, with "black adults (ages 25-64) reporting 28 percent degree attainment, Native Americans representing 23 percent, and Hispanics representing with 20 percent attainment, compared to 59 percent for Asians and 44 percent for whites." Also, college participation rates still differ significantly based on income. “While 82.4 percent of potential students (of all races) in the top third of the income scale enroll in college, only 53.5 percent of those in the bottom third do so,” The report said. Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president, states, “As the nation’s population becomes increasingly diverse, we must do more to address these troubling attainment divides … We cannot successfully meet our nation’s future economic and social needs unless educational achievement opportunities are available to all Americans.”
3. Comprehensive examples and disaggregated data showing how proposed solutions will address gaps in opportunity and achievement. This information is vital if the chasm between national goals and institutional implementation is to be bridged. Yet these details are notably missing from many national reports and publications. Large-scale solutions require local implementation, and many colleges and programs have little knowledge or information on achievement gaps by race, income status or academic ability for their own students. The 2011 report from MDRC, Turning the Tide: Five Years of Achieving the Dreamin Community Colleges, illuminates this divide with the findings that “overcoming racial, ethnic and income achievement gaps was not a key goal at the majority of Round 1 colleges. Only eight college leaders made explicit attempts to raise awareness about those issues.” As we move forward into an era of reform in developmental education, it is more important than ever to not only acknowledge, but to confront these gaps in educational attainment. Education Trust’s Replenishing Opportunity in America provides helpful examples that show the impact of the solutions on various student groups. This should be the norm when it comes to national reports. Providing these details and data about the proposed solutions will both enrich the conversation and help to gain buy-in of stakeholders.
4. Examples of other successful models. Boylan and Jones both encourage looking to new, innovative models in our efforts to reform remedial education, and we agree. Mastery learning, for example, has been shown to not only close race and gender gaps; it has also been shown to provide a solid foundation for college success. Given the scarcity of examples and data surrounding achievement gaps in the current reports, additional models and examples should be sought out and welcomed into the conversation.
In conclusion, overcoming racial, ethnic and income achievement gaps should be a goal of all American colleges. We cannot achieve equity until we are able to identify and address inequity. Simply acknowledging achievement gaps does not close them. Putting forth models that have actually closed these gaps, complete with details and data, will help to get us there. Using data to illuminate and address gaps in student opportunity and achievement should be the focus of the national conversation and reform efforts in developmental education going forward.
John Squires and Angela Boatman
John Squires is head of the mathematics department at Chattanooga State Community College. Angela Boatman is an assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University.