Thursday Inside higher education item about the higher education policy proposals that might emerge in the Biden administration are worth reading. Having said that, I coughed when I saw this:
“Colleges and universities should be held accountable not only when graduates fail to repay their loans, but also …”
Did you catch this?
This is a common mistake, but it artificially puts community colleges in a bad light. Not all graduates have loans. In fact, most of us don’t. In my own college, the median student loan debt for a graduate is zero. You would think that would be a good thing, but it actually works against us.
This works against us because overall the students with loans are among the most desperate economically. It is not a representative sample.
A student from a family earning, say, $ 75,000 a year can probably afford our annual tuition fee of $ 5,000 without a loan. That same college student who charges $ 50,000 in tuition would have to take out loans to do so. This means that the group of the most expensive college “borrowers” includes students from more affluent families. Better-off students are more likely to have family support to avoid defaults. But in a performance-based system, we are judged more harshly for having poorer borrowers.
There is also an assumption built into the quote that people with loans are graduates. Many are, but the highest default rates are those who only attended a semester or two and then dropped out. This is why the highest default rates are found among borrowers with the lowest cumulative debt. In fact, among true graduates – those who have graduated – default rates are much lower than the overall rate. Given the complicated and precarious economic circumstances more common among community college students, we have more students who drop out (or, more specifically, walk away for a while). They can easily fall into the “some debt, no degree” zone where defaults are highest.
It is obviously true that community colleges have a moral duty to do what they can to help students graduate. But it’s also true that sometimes life does, and it’s more likely to happen to students with less economic cushion. Punishing colleges for this is irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst. Success coaches, pantries, full-time faculty, and OER development help all students; they also all cost money.
Judging colleges by recent graduate salaries also hurts community colleges by excluding students who transfer and graduate before entering the professional workforce. These are many of our most successful students. But a student who graduates from Brookdale and spends the next year as a junior at Rutgers doesn’t earn much yet. When they graduate and get a good job, they show up in Rutgers statistics (or not), but not in ours. I know the transfer goes under the radar of a lot of political discussions, but in my opinion, students who start at community college and then finish their bachelor’s – whether they bothered to get an associate’s degree first. or not – got what they came for. They should be counted as successes because in every sense of the word they are. But they don’t show up in our graduate salary figures, and if they transferred before graduation, they actually count as dropouts.
It wouldn’t matter so much if we didn’t make funding conditional on meeting those parameters. But with the state and the federal government leaning in that direction, we need to get these measures right. I don’t think we should be punished for having low tuition fees or for sending students to undergraduate and higher. If anything, we should be rewarded for these. But the assumptions built into common measures are so ingrained that they can go almost unnoticed, halfway through an otherwise mundane sentence.