There is something to be said for how the selection process works in American higher education. Within a decentralized system offering both public and private opportunities, there are various levels of selectivity, sticker prices, and public subsidies both to students and institutions -- in principle, something for everyone.
Some opportunities start with bold ideas, like the Pell Grant, the GI Bill, and President Obama's recent proposal to offer a free community college education. Others reflect incremental choices, often at the state and local level, to support programs or increase levels of support already in place like student aid or institutional subsidies. But the decentralized nature of American higher education has always worked against a coherent and consistent education strategy to foster access and choice.
It's good to support an historic education system that works while preventing a "big brother" government from prescriptive intrusion. One of the unfortunate side effects, however, is that higher education policy drifts aimlessly among pundits, policy makers and the higher education establishment arguing for a bigger piece of the status quo pie. The deeper downside is that the value of higher education can be reduced to "swimsuit competition" rating systems, perceived political war mongering by "liberal" faculty and "conservative" trustees, and what sometimes appears to be stereotypical used car sticker price discounting disguised as institutional aid.
Most American families and prospective applicants could care less about these debates. What they want is for their college-bound -- whether traditional aged or older adults -- to get a good education, hopefully increasing skills that most still define as liberal arts, a degree that has value, an ability to pay for it, and a job after graduation.
It's a reasonable request.
The value of a college degree -- while never more important in critical sectors of the American economy as Tony Carnevale's research suggests -- is less clear in the new pragmatism that characterizes technology driven post recessionary America. The first hints of change are already emerging in the startling statistics presented by Moody's and Standard and Poor's on how many schools are failing to meet their enrollment targets, their rising levels of debt, and their flat or decreasing net tuition revenue.
It's too simple to say that most American colleges and universities charge too much. It's deceptive to argue further that their value is diminishing as some American employers bankroll certificates rather than college degrees. And, it's shortsighted to argue that MOOCs -- which have had problematic track records recently -- and for-profits have emerged as faster and cheaper forms of education. In fact, while these market forces influence higher education policy, the fault begins with how we compartmentalize the process of getting educated.
We have a pipeline problem.
Imagine, for example, that you are a community college student who seeks a four-year degree. It's pretty common since over eighty percent percent of first-time community college students identify receipt of a four-year degree as their goal.
You enter a pipeline where the counselor/student ratios can approximate 1000/1 with limited opportunity for sustained, on-going mentorship despite the best intentions from hopelessly overworked counselors. You likely face familial, social, cultural, psychological and financial barriers to a four-year degree. There may be "remedial" soft skill weaknesses to overcome like reading comprehension, study skills, oral communication, writing proficiency, quantitative capability, and an understanding of how to work in a collaborative setting.
On the four-year side, there is no comprehensive policy on how to attract community college students, whether they are welcome, and how they will be supported. At most places, the odds favor eighteen-year old first time freshman. After you apply, a member of the faculty, a dean, a staff member or an administrator will review your application to determine eligibility and fit, with wild inconsistencies among schools. And it is likely that not all of your credits will transfer since an underlying assumption is that you are "untested" and therefore received a two-year education that is not "four-year" college ready.
Is the best solution really to negotiate large state-to-state public higher education system articulation agreements to assist transfer students? Shouldn't you fix the pipeline first by supporting community counselors, adding "bridge" mentors, and creating the four-year safety net programs to support persistence and timely graduation?
Is it even possible to "legislate" or impose bureaucratically a solution to how to create a seamless pathway between two-year and four-year institutions?
The hidden truth behind the higher graduation rates at four public honors programs and selective national liberal arts colleges is that they attract better prepared students, provide better counseling and student service programs, and "mentor" each student -- one applicant at a time. It's one of the reasons for the higher sticker price.
Is it any wonder then that while over eighty percent of first-year community college students aspire to a four-year degree only eleven percent of them will ever achieve it?
Rather than legislating "system-to-system" change, it might be better to ask community college students and their counselors what they need. Americans may find that they already have a solution in hand; that the problem was more in the pipeline than in the policy; and that well-meaning bureaucratic solutions can become obstacles to those who they were supposed to help.