My Cassandra Moment


“You are not going to believe this.”

-Cassandra

The other day I had my first “Cassandra moment”. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the myth, Cassandra was a figure from Greek mythology who was cursed to know the future and never be believed by anyone she told (seriously, that’s the shortest version I can manage. They all get weirder from there.) This has been used as the basis for the Cassandra metaphor, which you may know from the film 12 Monkeys (and if you don’t know that film I banish you until you do).

Are we all on the same page now? Good. So anyway, I was listening to the news and I noticed that I was hearing a lot of politicians and reporters talking about two things in very close proximity to each other: the fact that a high school diploma isn’t enough to get a “good job” anymore and the crushing weight of student debt. Setting aside any discussions about what exactly qualifies as a “good job”, it occurred to me this might not be a coincidence. There are a couple different historical trends that seem to be colliding here, and not in a way that I am at all comfortable with.

The first is this question of what level of education a person “needs”. Now I’m a big fan of education, and I will be the first to say that requiring universal basic literacy and numeracy has done wonders for our country. The marginal return on universal education beyond that point is something we can debate, as well as the shape it should take, but considering that debate is already happening all the way through the high school level I find it curious that there has been a not-so-subtle linguistic shift over the past few decades. It used to be that “every child should finish high school”. Then the norm became that “every child that qualifies should be able to go to college.” Next up was “every child that wants to should be able to go to college.” Now we’re moving into the realm of ‘every child should go to college.”

Notice that shift? The norm used to be a high school diploma, full stop. Now we’ve moved the goal post to “go to college”, no qualifiers. When does that become “Bachelor’s degree” or more? That brings me to my second point.

How exactly did we manage to get “every child into college”? Student loans. Not a big deal really, since the job market was always growing, opportunity was always on the rise, and that would never change. Except of course that it did change, and now we have a generation mired in debt. Nobody’s fault, really, at least that’s what the politicians tell themselves and their constituents. Certainly not the fault of programs guaranteed to extend credit to students to pursue programs regardless of their likelihood of graduation or securing gainful employment when they graduate – but I digress.

So here we find ourselves, pushing to send more kids, all the kids really, to college, while insisting there’s no way that anyone can afford to go to college. If only there was a historical example we could look back on, something remarkably similar in terms of a formerly non-compulsory, primarily private form of education that had become dominated by government influence….

And all sarcasm aside, that’s where I found myself this weekend, with a horrifying new theory and nobody to believe it. I explained it to My Not So Humble Wife, how I saw the government (probably led by the federal Department of Education, possibly with the states taking a strong hand as they do in the current public education system) taking over university education in the next 20 years and making it compulsory up through at least an Associate’s degree and far more likely through a Bachelor’s degree. After all, it’s much easier to soak taxpayers across the board directly to support the schools than to expect students to pay their own way, and then we can make sure everyone has the same “fair” chance (if you really believe the current educational system is fair, kudos on your naiveté.)

She doesn’t believe me. Neither do my friends who I mentioned it to. Maybe they all think I’ve been watching too much House of Cards. (Not true, I haven’t had a chance to stream season 2 yet). Maybe they think I’m just a nutjob libertarian. (True but irrelevant.) Maybe they just think I’m jumping at shadows. (Never; too much exertion.)

Whatever the reason, they don’t believe me, and chances are neither will you. But that’s okay. Just like the original Cassandra, I’m going to make my prediction, and the future will reveal itself in time.

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Blind to Educational Needs


For decades, the ideal of collegiate admissions has been to be “blind” to a range of criteria that (theoretically) should be irrelevant to the admissions process, and among those criteria has been the ability to pay. But as a reported by Marketplace, a recent George Washington University student paper report found that school’s admissions office was “wait-listing students based, in part, on their need for financial aid.” The report goes on to cite Joyce Smith of the National Association for College Admission Counseling as saying that more universities are also taking this approach.

So here’s the big question: is this right?

On the one hand, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, in an economy that fetishizes college degrees and higher education has become mandatory in order to get a decent paying job, requiring students be able to pay for a degree before they enter school is dooming lower income students to a cycle of poverty. The haves will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to not-have. On the other hand, with the rapid and continuing rise in the cost of higher education irrespective of anyone’s ability to pay (or market desire for the product being produced) resulting in crippling student loans, it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest there is any equity to be had in admitting students to a school where they will be spending the majority of their income for decades to pay off their education. In that scenario, those who come in with the ability to pay will continue to have a decided advantage; the haves will still have, and the have-nots will simply have debt.

I would suggest the answer is not need blind admissions, but at least (as GW seems to be moving toward) “need aware” admissions, an acknowledgement that simply taking out loans will not be sufficient and that ability to pay must be taken into consideration at some point in the process. Ideally this would factor in financial aid that does not require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, so as to still allow lower-income students an opportunity to access more competitive schools. This should be paired with a discussion about what should be charged for education at schools, as well as what is and is not supported at those schools; as access to higher education becomes more elusive and more expensive this becomes more of a priority.

I also believe part of that discussion should be at least some consideration for stated major intent. Students who plan to spend a significant amount of time and money pursuing a degree that is statistically unlikely to yield a career that will allow them a decent ability to support themselves and repay any loans they needed to take out should be ranked lower. Perhaps that seems cruel, but I have seen too many students who already come out of universities without the necessary skills to succeed in business; if someone wants to spend $35,000 and up on a Master’s degree in Puppetry they may feel free to do so, but at some level we need to at least take into account the very real possibility they will not be able to get paying work at all, let alone sufficient to repay the loans they have accrued. Giving them sympathy for staging protests in the park doesn’t help; giving them some sense of market demands actually might.

Speaking of market demands, part of the problem here is the incentive structure, and I’m not just speaking of the incentive to get students to take on debt. The incentives to get students to apply just to reject them in a bid to look “selective” is ridiculous, but it’s all about gaming the system. We need a better way of ranking schools. Here’s one: perhaps we should come up with a rating system that judges schools based on the percentage of their graduates who graduate within five years, have a job within two years of graduation, and what salary they are making five years after graduation. Mix in some formula of lower-income admissions if that’s something we value, and be sure to include a percentage rating of how much of their student debt the average student admitted in the freshman class (not just graduates) has paid off within five ten years of starting at that institution.

Wonder how schools would fare then?