Are there really too many high-achieving college applicants? Ted O’Neill, dean of admissions at the University of Chicago for two decades, seems to think so, writing recently, “It was nice to be able to take chances on kids who didn’t have perfect records, but who revealed something special—some kind of hunger for ideas and an intellectual life.” O’Neill complained that many of his colleagues at elite schools no longer take such chances—they are overwhelmed with applications from high-achieving students with perfect résumés. Perhaps this is true at the highest echelons, but most colleges take far too many chances on young people. They are admitting too many who are not qualified, relying on a vast infrastructure of remedial classes to bring them up to speed. Too often, these students simply drop out.
According to a report released in April by Education Reform Now, a think tank and advocacy group, “More than half a million college freshmen—approximately one in four students who enter college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of college, costing their families nearly $1.5 billion annually.” In addition to out of pocket payments, students borrowed $380 million a year, much of it from taxpayers, to bear these costs.
According to the report, it isn’t just low-income students who are facing this problem. Almost half of the freshmen doing some remedial coursework on American college campuses were from middle- and upper-income families.
Why do schools continue to admit students who aren’t prepared? Follow the money: Private colleges—at least those below the elite levels—are desperate for students and willing to accept deeply unqualified ones if it means more tuition dollars. Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, notes that for demographic and financial reasons, “Marginal [private] schools are having a tough time getting students. So their natural inclination is to take anyone they can get.”
While some administrators like to talk about this in terms of taking a chance on borderline students, others are a little more realistic. Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, says that he has heard upper- level administrators say “not everyone here is cut out for this school. It’s okay that a significant number of them don’t finish.” Indeed, the financial incentives are there to accept more kids in the early years because, particularly at large universities, those are the cheapest to educate. They are enrolled in big introductory classes, often taught by graduate students or adjunct professors.
Declining standards in elementary and secondary education are partly to blame. “When students leave high school with lower academic skills than if they had gotten a G.E.D.,” says Poliakoff, “the public has been subject to fraudulent behavior on a macro level.” But colleges and universities aren’t exactly guiltless, with many teaching remedial skills in nonremedial classes. It’s not uncommon, Poliakoff says, “to see a college-level math class description include learning ratios, decimals, percentages, and fractions.”
Again, follow the money: “Historically the funding formula for public universities in many states has been based on the number of bodies a school has,” says Vedder. “Even if a kid goes for year and a half,” the university can still count him.
So what can be done to change these incentives? To begin with, public university systems could be funded based on graduation rates, not on the number of students enrolled. And it makes sense to put colleges on the hook for a portion of the loans of students who drop out: It’s unfair to burden students with loans when they should not have been admitted in the first place. Rewarding colleges for graduation as opposed to enrollment might create its own set of bad incentives—the dumbing down of curricula to ensure higher graduation rates—but it would be a start.
More students could go from high school to community colleges, which remain significantly less expensive than four-year schools. The City University of New York now requires that students needing remedial work do it at a junior college. Clemson University has formed a partnership with a local technical school.There may also be a market for private educational companies, such as Kaplan, to provide a kind of 13th grade for students. Remedial education in a university setting is as inefficient as it is expensive. Students who need high-school-level coursework need classes that meet regularly and probably smaller teacher-student ratios. Improving reading or algebra skills is not going to be easy in a class of 100 that meets three times a week for an hour.
Finally, colleges need to make better use of the data available to them. Schools can actually be far more scientific now about figuring out which students are going to succeed.
The college-cost bubble may end up being like the housing bubble: We’ve “overbuilt” higher education on the premise that every young person needs a college degree to succeed, just as we said that every family must own a home to be part of the middle class. We created a population of underwater mortgage-holders; now we are creating more and more college dropouts.
As Poliakoff notes, “Schools have to get beyond the pieties of saying they want to serve at-risk students and be firm in saying ‘No, this is not yet the time.’ “