As we head into the holiday season, then the presidential primary season, I would like to discuss three terms that you might hear often that are tied to college admissions: College Accessibility, College Affordability and College Readiness. I’m bothered by how these terms have been misused by the current mix of presidential candidates. They have been misused to back ridiculous statements and policy positions.
College Accessibility means that a college admissions process considers students with regard to their academic accomplishments in high school as well as their promise for academic success in college.The college admissions process usually considers applicants with regard to diversity versus a deliberate effort to exclude people from a particular group. Different colleges will measure achievement and potential in different ways, depending on competition for seats in a class as well as the academic programs desired by the applicants. A good college admissions office will not want to admit prospective engineers who cannot do trigonometry nor prospective journalists who cannot write a grammatical sentence.
But college accessiblity is not equal in the U.S. The college admissions processes at the most selective schools favor the well-to-do, and sometimes athletes. They technically are invited to have first crack at the available seats in a freshman class. After these colleges have offered as many seats to these constituents early as they legitimately can, accessibility to the remaining seats in the class becomes more competitive.
Colleges, at least the more selective ones, would be more accessible if they dropped Early Decision as well as Restrictive Early Action. The level of competition would be high, but the process would be fairer to all applicants of all income groups. It would also improve college access in a meaningful way.
College Accessibility is also taken to mean that a student can “go to college.” To some extent that’s true. In many states and larger cities there will be a college that will admit nearly anyone within commuting distance who applies through their college admissions process. But the quality of the services at that school will vary.
Some schools are well prepared to advise these students and guide them to a degree. Temple University, which launched “Fly In Four” as a pledge signed by many members of its past two freshman classes, added advisors and ramped up their training to help these students in a direction towards graduating on time in the degree program that they choose. This even includes paying for the costs of courses required over an extra semester if the school made it less possible for the student to finish their program on time. That is a serious commitment to accessibility as well as student success.
But Temple is an exception, a school that knows its market for students and tried to find meaningful ways to support them. Education is the sum of many services performed by people; the teaching in the classroom is only one of them.
College Affordability means that any student should be able to go to college without taking on an unreasonable level of debt. The only way this happens is when you are wealthy, receive generous scholarships or attend a school that charges little or no tuition. Unfortunately, the average student borrower graduates with nearly $29,000 in debt, while nearly 70 percent of all graduates have to take on debt. That’s more than the maximum that a college student may borrow over four years through the Federal Stafford Student Loan program.
A student who graduates having borrowed the maximum of $27,000 over four years would need to earn a starting salary of over $33,000 to begin to repay that debt six months after graduation. Nationally, across all majors, the average salary for a 2015 graduate was just over $50,000 according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. However, students who majored in English or Psychology earned closer to the $33,000 they needed to begin repaying their loans, presuming they found work just after graduation. The majority of graduates in the Class of 2015 did not have a job offered by the date that they were handed their diploma. No doubt many are still looking.
Here’s another way to look at College Affordability. When I went to Rutgers, a family earning $45,000 in 1978 would have paid about $3,600 for the freshmen year for tuition and fees, room and board and some incidentals. This was eight percent of the family’s income, before loans or scholarships were considered. Back then you could borrow up to $7,500 for your education over four years, an average of $1,875 a year, about half of the cost of education, with all of the interest subsidized.
Today, that same family would need to earn just over $170,000. Tuition and fees, room and board at Rutgers as well as the same incidentals run approximately $30,000 a year, nearly 18 percent of this family’s income, again before loans and scholarships. They could borrow up to $5,500 for the freshman year, but the interest subsidy is need-based, and only up to the first $3,500. If the student or the family cannot pay the interest, it is accrued and capitalized into the balance for all of the loans that the student will take out over four years. The $5,500 represents only 18 percent of the costs of education.
Needless to say college affordability keeps becoming a myth as college costs and student loan debt rises faster than salaries. The best way for college-bound students to deal with this reality is to plan ahead.
Students who are sure that they want to pursue a major or career path that does not lead to a high entry-level salary would be wise to consider less expensive options that lead to that degree as long as they also provide opportunities to build a resume in the field while pursuing that degree.
The glamour of a degree from a “name” school wears off quickly if you’ve gone broke to pay for it. There are too many ways to get to Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington, Silicon Valley and many other desired places without taking on ridiculous debt.
College Readiness is the last of these misused terms. It has been used to justify high-stakes testing in the high schools as well as pressure on high school students to take more advanced courses than they might be ready to take. College Readiness has also been used to justify the use of the ACT and the SAT as measures of potential. It is the hardest think for college admissions officers to gauge when they review applications. Not every applicant has the same high school education and out-of-school experiences. Not to mention that different students have different academic and professional interests, as expressed in their essays and their choices of a major.
But in the rush to push tests and advanced courses, educators, politicians and testing companies appear to forget that we are working with teenagers who do not usually know what they want to do when they become responsible for paying their way through life. When a school devotes more time to preparing students for tests, it devotes less time to delivering an education. In effect, in the cause of measuring learning, high school students are learning less.
It would be very easy to say that a high school junior who has excellent grades in the hardest academic courses as well as high test scores is college ready. However, that person is less ready when they have little to no idea about what they would study in college, or what they might be interested in doing for a living after college, or if college is necessary at all. The high school might have educated them. But the education might not have left a lasting impact.
The best way to make college-bound students college ready is to encourage them to find out what interests them and where those interests could lead. Then they can find the college as well as the college admissions process that best fits.
High schools already help through extracurricular activities as well as their relationships with their local business community. Many also build relationships with area colleges to offer college-level courses to high school students. If I wanted to create a larger pool of college-ready students I would want to see more dollars invested in these activities, including helping high school students to find jobs after school, than the large sums of money invested in high stakes testing.
The sad reality is that too many college-bound students currently in high school are not adequately informed about College Accessibility, College Affordability and College Readiness nor are they informed at the right time. Otherwise they would be making better-informed college choices.