Free college for all will be a disaster

Democratic presidential hopefuls have made free college for all an issue that can no longer be ignored (“Free college for All Is an Experiment That Has Already Failed,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 7).  With student debt topping $1.6 trillion, its appeal is understandable. But if the proposal ever becomes a reality, it will be a fiasco.  The most ambitious effort ever made to promote equality of opportunity in higher education in this country that began at City University of New York in 1970 still stands as the best evidence.

Under an open admissions policy, all students who graduated in the top half of their high school class or who had a grade point average of 80 were entitled to enroll at CUNY.  From the start, the faculty had to engage in remedial instruction beyond anything they had done in the past.  In 1999, as the system continued to decay, a task force appointed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani called for a major overhaul.  It brought in Mathew Goldstein, who was then the president of Adelphia University, to lead the effort.  By imposing demanding admissions requirements and establishing clear performance metrics, CUNY once again regained its reputation.

In “City On A Hill,” James Traub describes what actually took place at CUNY from 1970 to 1998 when open admissions prevailed.  What he writes serves as a cautionary tale for those who want free college for all. The fact is that not everyone is college material. It takes a certain IQ to handle college-level material.  Our competitors abroad have long accepted this truth.  That’s why they give vocational education the respect it deserves. Germany, for example, uses scores on its Abitur to determine who receives a vocational or academic education.  Its two-tier system has helped keep youth unemployment remarkably low.

Yet we persist in the fiction that vocational education – now branded as career and technical education – is inferior.  We pay a stiff price for our attitude.  The vast majority of four-year colleges and universities are non-selective in their admissions.  They churn out thousands of graduates with degrees in useless fields. In the average bachelor’s degree program, students leave school with a debt burden equal to about 80 percent of their salary in the first year after graduation.


In contrast, community colleges offer inexpensive two-year associate degrees and one-year certificates in a wide range of desperately needed specializations.  Graduates are quickly employed without the debt their peers shoulder. Nevertheless, high school counselors continue to advise seniors to apply to four-year institutions, in the fiction that without a bachelor’s degree they face a bleak future. The mismatch explains why 40 percent of those who go to college don’t earn a degree. The blow to their self-esteem, coupled with the debt they incurred, should be enough to call into question free college for all.

But what about the wage premium attached to a bachelor’s degree?  Although those who have the degree earn on average a million dollars more over a lifetime than those with a high school diploma, it does not follow that all will do so.  The payoff for the coveted degree varies dramatically by field of study.  Gender studies majors, say, don’t earn nearly as much as, say, welders.

Moreover, there’s little connection between an institution’s brand name and the earning power of its graduates.  That’s a lesson parents caught up in the Operation Varsity Blues scandal never learned.  They falsely assumed that a degree from a marquee-name school warranted the expenditure of thousands of dollars.

The truth is that we have been wildly oversold on the value of a bachelor’s degree.  College is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.  It is not an absolute determinant.













Billionaire philanthropists deserve praise in erasing college debt

When billionaire philanthropists engage in various acts of giving to colleges and universities, their largess is criticized by some as doing little to help solve the fundamental problem (“How Philanthropists Can Ease College Debt,” The New York Times, Dec. 27).  In other words, no good deed goes unpunished.

There’s no question that existing tax laws and their own egos explain much of their generosity.  But that’s no reason to denigrate their giving by calling them “shock benefactors.”  They could just as well not donate anything at all to educational institutions. They’re not responsible for what exists in higher education.

It’s impossible for these 1-percenters to solve the inequities that characterize colleges and universities in this country.  That’s why I applaud them for their actions, regardless of their motivation.

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Income-share agreements will change college majors

With student loan balances at $1.6 trillion, a new financial instrument is attracting attention (“New Kind of Student Loan Gains Major Support. Is There a Downside?”  The New York Times, Dec. 24). Students who sign a legally binding document called an income-sharing agreement pay a certain percentage of their earnings over a fixed period.  If they make more than they owe, they pay more.  If they make less, they pay less.

If income-share agreements catch on, I believe they have the potential to make students think what they should major in.  Critics will argue that the value of a bachelor’s degree should not be based on its marketability alone.  Otherwise, colleges will become merely trade schools. I understand that view, but critics need a reality check. Students have to be able to pay their bills after graduation.  They can’t live on passion alone.

The days when few people graduated from college is over.  With so many degree holders, the ability to hit the ground running after graduation is essential for sheer survival.

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Better ways of teaching teamwork

The case for tackle football in high school rests on its claim that it teaches leadership and teamwork (“The Risks of Turning Our Backs on Football,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 21).  It does, but the price paid is far too great.

I’m referring not only to concussions but to the joints as well.  The human body is not designed to sustain trauma, which is what characterizes tackle football.  There are other team sports that achieve the same goals but without the risks.  Water polo and lacrosse immediately come to mind.

The sheer violence of tackle football is also said to build character.  Using that argument, I suppose a case can be made for boxing, which by its very nature is built on inflicting as much pain as possible on its participants. But I’m opposed to boxing as well for the same reasons.

I’ve seen too many former players at the gym where I belong who can hardly walk because of arthritis.  Athletics are an important part of the curriculum.  But they’ve become an end in themselves, rather than a means to an end.  The assertion that athletics are responsible for this country’s exceptionalism is absurd.

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‘Diversity, equity and inclusion’ statements are a travesty

Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where divergent ideas can thrive.  But too many now require applicants for faculty positions to agree to support diversity, equity and inclusion (“The University’s New Loyalty Oath,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 20).

Using a scoring system called a rubric, they rate applicants, in the process bypassing the judgment of hiring committees.  A low score disqualifies a candidate regardless of their other qualifications.  This is a disturbing trend reminiscent of the loyalty oath that the University of California required seventy years ago.  After 31 faculty were fired for refusing to sign, the Standing Order of the Regents 101.1 (d) was put in place and remains.

The irony is that diversity apparently applies only to race and ethnicity – not to ideas.  Faculty who don’t toe the party line are named and shamed, which makes a mockery of the free exchange of ideas.

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Ministerial exception abuse

Religious schools claim they can’t be sued by their teachers for violating the rights protecting teachers in public schools, citing ministerial exception (“Court to Rule On Bias Laws and Religion In Workplace,” The New York Times, Dec. 19).  So far, they’ve been able to get away with outrageous practices.  But hopefully that will change when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the matter.

The way it works is quite simple: By calling their employees ministers, the schools have what is essentially diplomatic immunity from suits.  In EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, the high court held that teachers can be fired even if they are a protected class.

But the First Amendment should not be allowed to be used as a shield against discrimination suits. To date, religious schools have received broad exemptions from government scrutiny and regulation. Too much religious liberty is as bad as none at all.  I hope that the high court finally rules in favor of teachers.  It’s a step long overdue.

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The other side of the charter school success story

Charter schools are seen by reformers as the solution to the failure of traditional public schools.  But a new report from the Network for Public Education calls that view into question (“A New Report Finds Massive Waste and Abuse in Federally Funded Charter Schools,” The Progressive, Dec. 12).

It estimates that about $1.17 billion has been wasted in charter schools since they began, resulting in a failure rate of 37 percent.  Despite bold promises to parents and communities, charter schools don’t necessarily deliver the results.  The cause is the Education Department’s practice of awarding grants to states with few rules and virtually no accountability.

Charter school supporters will be quick to point out that at least failing schools are no longer in operation, whereas traditional public schools that continue to fail remain.  That’s true, but it’s a feeble defense for children who are left in the lurch when charter schools suddenly close often in midyear.

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For-profit colleges have immunity from borrower-defense rule

If Betsy DeVos has her way, for-profit colleges that used fraudulent claims to lure students will get off virtually unscathed (“DeVos Again Tries to Limit Loan Relief,” The New York Times, Dec. 11).  That’s because student debt will only be totally forgiven if they earned far less than other students in similar programs.

That’s outrageous.  The intent of the rule known as the “borrower defense to repayment” was to protect students who assumed debt to attend colleges that published misleading statements about future employment.  By preventing students from receiving relief, DeVos is giving the schools the equivalent of diplomatic immunity.

It should matter not one whit that some of these students are earning the median earnings of students from other programs the Education Department considers comparable.  The fact remains that the colleges engaged in fraudulent activity.  By giving them a get-out-of-jail card, DeVos will only encourage others schools to engage in similar practices, viewing the possible punishment as a cost of doing business.

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Apprentice programs offer bright future

As the cost of a four-year college degree continues to soar, apprentice programs are appealing to more and more young people (“Want a White-Collar Career Without College Debt? Become an Apprentice,” The New York Times, Dec. 11).  Not only do they lead to well-paying jobs, but they don’t burden enrollees with heavy student debt.

Most apprentice programs are still in skilled trades, but in the past two years more than 700 programs have been created in white-collar fields.  Once trained, graduates are quickly hired.  Yet opposition remains.  Critics claim that they create a two-tier system: those graduating from elite schools who establish connections and those in apprentice programs who lack such ties.  But we already have a two-tier system.  I question if graduates from third-tier universities can ever hope to compete with graduates from the Ivies.

I say it’s time to give vocational education the respect it deserves.  The new apprentice programs are a step in the right direction.

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SAT and ACT face relentless criticism

The lawsuit against the University of California alleges that it discriminates against students by requiring SAT or ACT test scores (“Students, Community Groups Sue University of California to Drop SAT, ACT,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 11).  The plaintiffs say the tests act as a proxy for wealth, race and privilege.

I have no brief for either test, but I base my opinion on the way the tests are constructed, rather than on their outcomes.  Both tests appeal to colleges and universities because they allow students to be ranked against each other.  If the tests were loaded up with items that measured only the most important material taught effectively by teachers, scores would likely be bunched together, making comparisons extremely difficult.

To avoid that probability, test makers include items that measure what students bring to class, instead of what they learn in class.  They do so because they’ve found it produces score spread.  That is not fair, but it is not illegal.  Yet plaintiffs charge that disparate impact is illegal.  I maintain that they won’t be happy unless all students post equal scores.

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