How to define the worst college

Image by Stuart Miles via FreeDigitialPhotos-net

Image by Stuart Miles via FreeDigitialPhotos-net

There have been a few articles out lately about the worst colleges out there.

“These schools’ shortcomings, according to Washington Monthly, are not so much in the quality of the education per se but rather in its utility: How likely are students to graduate? What does a degree from there cost? What’s the level of student debt? What’s the default rate on student loans?

“Many of these colleges are dropout factories, where students are unlikely to graduate, and prices, debt levels, and student loan default rates are high,” author Ben Miller said in the magazine’s September/October issue, which ranked poor-performing colleges.”

They used cost, graduation, student debt, and default rates on student loans. And this is the problem with the entire question of what college is ‘worst.’

Those are all tied together, and they all tend to go into the same issue: people who want to be students, who want to go to college, but are limited due to economic hardship.

Let’s just be honest about it and skip the whole beating around the bush thing:  poor people have less options of where to go to school.

They often have to work more hours at their jobs. They often have children. They often start school later (having had to work first and not simply transition from high school into college).

So these poor Americans try to live out the broken American Dream by going and getting a college degree.

But the work is harder than they expect, and it takes longer than they expect, and they wind up in schools that cost more because those schools are more flexible; they have instructors who are told to keep up with their students.

When I worked at a for-profit college, I called my students at least once a week if there was any problem (non-attendance, work issues, etc.).

The students had best intentions, but often the stories I heard were that they lost their job, a family member was sick, their car had broken down and couldn’t be repaired for the money they had, they had lost their apartment or house…all things that people with more money and time wouldn’t have had to deal with. Or that they would have been able to deal with more easily.

The connection between the issues is what leads to the ‘worst’ college rankings: students start at expensive schools because they need to be there, whether it’s for the individualized attention they get or because they need the flexibility. The students run into problems because of the cost and the high student loans they must take out. They often drop out because of the money problems. Once they’ve dropped out, there’s no way they can pay the student loans, and so they default on them. It’s not that these things should be considered the ‘utility’ of the college. It’s the students. It’s their situations.

Instead of talking about the evils of these “dropout factories,” why don’t we look at how to make affordable colleges? Why don’t we look at how to get colleges to be more accessible and flexible? Why don’t we look at the underlying problem: the fact that high schools (especially in low-income areas) also have high drop-out rates and turn out students who aren’t ready for college?

Of course, the answer is that it’s easier. For those with the money and the privilege, it’s all about the colleges that try to work with these students, and grading the schools themselves.

We need to stop talking about the bad and start looking at how to make things good. What can we do to help these students instead of judging them and the schools they attend?