I hope most of us can agree that these two outcomes would be less than optimal.

Yet the hard-headed report just issued by the Education Trust suggests that we’re certainly headed there. Fancy schmancy schools don’t take in enough Pell Grant people and risk becoming gilded ghettos. Why should the American taxpayer subsidize that? Trailer park techs take in little besides poor people, many of whom never graduate. The students default on their big government grants. Why should we subsidize that?

So, reasonably enough, the authors of this report argue that if after a certain number of years a university can’t graduate anyone, or a university graduates only the sort of people who need little help from us to pay for their education, we should withdraw tax support from those places.

I’ll have more to say about this in a few moments. Ne quittez pas.

*******************

Hokay. Here’s the deal. It’s a great report – clearly written, tough-minded. The authors are correct that – since accreditation agencies won’t do their bit and shut down drop-out factories like Texas Southern University, a school the Education Trust report features – the federal government needs to shut them down via refusal of tax subsidies. Certainly the free market is doing its bit – enrollment at schools like Texas Southern is tanking – but, hard as this is to believe, it’s true that Texas Southern University and the many schools like it will continue to exist until the heat death of the universe. They will continue to function with only faculty, administrators, and football players. They will mutter vaguely about online programs or something.

And why will they continue to exist?

Look no further than Garnet F. Coleman. There’s a Garnet in every crowd, the local pol who believes in the “strong status of our proud institution, Texas Southern University” and makes sure hapless taxpayers keep throwing their money down a hole. Garnet thinks it’s fine that TSU is incredibly ineptly (and sometimes corruptly) run; fine that its athletic program (why does a school like this have athletics at all?) is deeply in debt, blahblahblah… Because TSU does so much good by failing to graduate students whom it burdens with lifelong debt…

In one of its more shameful editorial decisions, the New York Times two years ago agreed to play along with this madness. Sent a reporter down there who, without comment, quoted TSU’s president saying this:

He said his administration is taking a more hands-on, student-centric approach that should improve academic achievement, which he said had not previously received sufficient attention. Despite what the graduation rates suggest, Mr. Rudley said the campus is in the midst of a renaissance.

The reporter also gushed about new campus buildings, better maintenance of public spaces, etc. Yes, a renaissance was happening right now.

Or in a minute or two. Be patient, be patient.

The Education Trust people now introduce the startling proposal that we no longer wait, that we acknowledge the wasteful scandal of schools like TSU and shut them down.

Texas Southern University … fell in the bottom 5 percent of all institutions on graduation rates in 2011, graduating only 11.8 percent of its full-time freshmen within six years of initial enrollment. Some 80 percent of Texas Southern’s freshmen are from low-income families (i.e., Pell Grant recipients); 90 percent are from underrepresented minority grants and many are weakly prepared for college, with a median SAT score of 800 out of 1600 and an average high school GPA of 2.7. But so too are the students at Tennessee State University and North Carolina Central University, yet they graduate at rates more than three times as high (35.5 percent and 38.4 percent, respectively). In fact, Texas Southern performs at the very bottom of its closest 15 peer institutions and has for many years.

**************************

Then there’s the other end of the problem: Rich kid schools.

Middlebury College in Vermont, for example, in 2011 fell in the bottom 5 percent of all colleges in its enrollment of low-income students: 10 percent. Yet equally selective institutions like Amherst College and Vassar College enrolled more than twice as many low-income students, 23 and 27 percent respectively. We see the same variation in the public sector. The University of Virginia, which ranks in the bottom 5 percent on service to low-income students, enrolled only 13 percent Pell students in 2011, whereas the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and the State University of New York at Binghamton enrolled 20 and 26 percent Pell students…

And here’s a fascinating mystery:

There are high-achieving, low-income students whose academic credentials place them well within the band of elite colleges’ current admission standards but who for a variety of reasons do not apply to or enroll in these selective institutions. Nearly two-thirds of low-income students with high grades and SAT scores do not attend the most selective institutions for which they are qualified, compared with just over one-quarter of high-income students with similar academic credentials.

Counterintuitive, huh? You’re a genius from Missoula but you don’t go to Harvard, which is desperate for you. Why not?

Well, begin by reading this essay by Walter Kirn, a kid from Minnesota who accepted an offer of admission from Princeton. Although UD has difficulty believing the story Kirn tells about being kidnapped by a castle-dweller, she finds the rest of his account of being middle-class at Princeton credible. Not only were these four years of social hell – of being made to feel poor and outcast – they were intellectual hell as well, as Kirn tells it.

We laughed at the notion of “authorial intention” and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend — or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors … we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.

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13 Responses to “The University as a Warehouse for Rich People, and the University as a Warehouse for Poor People.”

  1. Jack/OH Says:

    I may be able to help with the mystery of high-achieving, low-income students who shun selective colleges. After a few years of feeling really crappy at the busted-up local high school, that student may be making a calculated decision by his own lights that he’ll “recover normal” by shooting for the local Podunk Tech rather than Harvard.

  2. Stephen Karlson Says:

    That calculated decision is what obligates the faculty and administration at Podunk Tech to recognize that they are in the same business as Harvard.

  3. JND Says:

    Texas Southern is a HBCU. I pity SACS if SACS ever seriously cracks down. SACS, not Texas Southern, will be at fault.

  4. Jack/OH Says:

    Taxpayer money makes a difference. Our local Podunk Tech started as occasional day and night courses taught to immigrants by selfless instructors. Students were eager to learn, instructors were eager to teach, education was pay-as-you-go, and people who weren’t interested neither went nor paid.

    Toss in government money, and you’ve got a serious incentive for our proto-Podunk Tech to grab students, whether eager or not, by the forelock for the undue benefit of instructors, administrators, staffers. This can’t possibly be difficult to understand.

    The Colemanite Rationale is very real among politicians, I suspect. If I suggested pulling the plug on taxpayer funds for dubious proprietary colleges and community colleges, I’d expect to hear something like, “Jack/OH, we can’t give up on people. These institutions break the cycle of poverty by offering education that prepares students for the increasingly demanding high-tech world . . . .” IOW-blah, blah, blah.

    I’ll guess there’s likely a case to immediately de-charter a very few colleges, but I don’t think it’ll happen without political “crisis entrepeneurship”, such as a RICO prosecution, or student loan defaults topping some threshold percentage.

  5. Tony Grafton Says:

    Walter Kirn has made a good career out of whinging eloquently about his elite education, and I’m sure much of his time at Princeton was as unprofitable as he says. But, as you know, I teach there–was teaching there before he arrived, am still there–and I’ve worked with dozens of students who put in enormous amounts of time and effort on their courses, did a superb job, and went on to achieve more afterwards, and very few whose careers at Princeton remind me of his. The social system can be pretty awful–worse now, in some ways, than when I arrived. But there are ways around and through that too. Just sayin’ . . .

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Tony: Absolutely. As I say in my post, I think at least one of Kirn’s anecdotes is a little too good to be true; and it’s a bit rich (if I may) for him to chronicle every hideous second of his prize-winning time there.

    On the other hand, if we want to know why working-class and even middle-class people might avoid attending a school whose social system as you say, “can be pretty awful,” Kirn will do to evoke the on-the-ground hideousness – from the point of view of people of average means – of lots of clueless and sometimes cruel rich people on a campus.

  7. charlie Says:

    If you’re working class and attend a state university, you’re treated horribly. If you’re working class and attend one of the most prestigious private unis, you’re treated horribly.

    It seems that those students who are smart enough to attend college are the ones who are smart enough to know they shouldn’t go to college…..

  8. Jack/OH Says:

    Stephen Karlson, charlie. We’re talking about the specifics of UD’s post, right?

  9. Stephen Karlson Says:

    Jack, absolutely. I’m of the view that “we’re not Harvard (or Michigan or Wisconsin or Oberlin or Bowdoin …) and there’s no point in emulating them” or the more insidious “first-generation-non-traditional-immigrant” mindset are both formulas that patronize students and condemn to a less rich life precisely those strivers from Missoula (or Warren, Michigan, or Freeport, Illinois, or Longview, Texas) who perceive the Ivies as not for them, and who may never be pushed out of their comfort level at the state-located regional comprehensive. Fortunately, in my 35 years at Wayne State and Northern Illinois, I can point to people who make academic policy who get that.

  10. charlie Says:

    @Jack/OH that, and my years of teaching at working class high schools has taught me all I need to know about predatory financial aide departments. Boiler room operators, targeting elderly widows, could be considered analogous…..

  11. Jack/OH Says:

    Stephen, charlie–Thanks! Although a pretty close observer of my local Podunk Tech, I’m not a prof. I do need to check with folks who have insider knowledge whether my own judgments about Podunk are at least plausible.

    My personal bias is for students to pick the most intellectually challenging school they believe they can handle. They won’t regret the depth and pace of instruction, the implicit authority of the institution, or the quality of their classmates. But, I’ll allow that familiarity, proximity to family, cost, etc., can be important factors for many students in deciding where to go.

    Stephen, I think our local Podunk does try and accommodate more intellectually aggressive students with honors sections, genuine independent study, and referrals to summer programs at highly selective colleges.

    Charlie, ” . . . predatory financial aid . . . .” I don’t disagree. I wish I did disagree, but I don’t.

  12. University Diaries » “American universities, he says, have become playpens for empty legacies of the rich; there is no recognition that the historical trend has run in the opposite direction.” Says:

    […] Read all about it. […]

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    […] Southern University fell in the bottom 5 percent of all institutions on graduation rates in 2011, graduating only 11.8 percent of its full-time freshmen within six years of initial […]

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