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College is not for everyone [Commentary]

Fresh off her victory over childhood obesity, Michelle Obama has declared a new national goal to increase the percentage of low-income Americans in college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 52 percent of the poor attend college right out of high school, compared to 82 percent of the wealthy.

I respect Michelle Obama. Like the First Lady, I come from a neighborhood where college was not the norm. For her and for me, college made sense. But does it make sense for most students?

Unlike Ms. Obama, I've seen the facts on the ground, having taught well over 100 courses at 10 colleges and universities. Since 1984, I've taught everywhere from second tier "directional" universities with "southern" in their names to the Ivy League.

All that teaching in all those places makes me doubt that 52 percent of anyone belongs in college. For me, the scandal isn't that half of low income students attend college, but that more than 80 percent of the wealthy do. That latter percentage should be cut in half.

Michelle Obama has never graded student essays with five grammatical errors or God-awful constructions per page. Ms. Obama has never seen students working hard to avoid working because they lack a commitment to academic work. Many students did not make a rational decision to go to college; they came to college because others told them to and give all the effort that implies.

The people who tell them college is the thing to do are not professors but high school educators. I serve on the (unpaid) board of a charter school serving students who had difficulty in traditional public schools. As one mom who switched her child from a traditional public school to a our charter complained, "the encouragement at the public school was too much of a 'push' to go to college or failure was your only other option, which really disappointed me as a parent. There was no talking of trade schools or technical schools to further your career, only colleges. … Their encouragement level is horrible."

Universal college attendance is also encouraged by university administrators, who care less about whether students learn than whether budgets grow. And of course the college push comes from politicians like Ms. Obama. To paraphrase columnist Thomas Sowell, a young person sleeping in class is a "student" while a young person sleeping on the beach is unemployed. Politicians prefer the former statistic to the latter. For the political class, even if students learn nothing in college, just keeping them off the job market for a few years artificially lowers the unemployment rate. This sort of thinking has had more to do with expanding college enrollments than has the ballyhooed tech boom, much of it led by college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

College "students" lacking the desire to do college work have played a role in reshaping higher education. Ever eager to show high graduation rates to pad their U.S. News and World Report rankings, college administrators have gutted serious requirements like math, history and foreign language. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report in "Academically Adrift," professors now spend less time teaching and mentoring undergraduates, instead focusing on the status and income from grants and publication. Students have responded by spending half as much time studying as in 1961; even while "earning" better grades from professors who do not take the time to grade seriously. Mr. Arum and Ms. Roksa tested students, finding that for most majors in most colleges, students graduate with little learning. So long as the tuition and tax dollars keep flowing, no one much cares.

Unfortunately, like the housing bubble, someone will pay for the party. Right now, aside from the taxpayers, the losers are students who graduate (or not) having learned little, but loaded with loans.

A Baltimore native, Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. With others, he has written or edited 11 books including The Politically Correct University. His email is rmaranto@uark.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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