Barbarians at the Gate?

As a recovering politician and the founder of both an innovative community college and state university, I am no stranger to argumentation, criticism, or controversy.  I have also, however, found that reasonable people can disagree on specifics within a larger issue, while simultaneously agreeing with each other on its other aspects.

Such is the case with my views on the New York Times opinion post, “College, the Great Unleveler” by Suzanne Mettler.  I believe Mettler is right on several points. From her perch, high above Cayuga’s waters at Cornell, she identifies that there is a caste system in American higher education.  It isolates poorer and historically marginalized learners of all ages, usually in innovative, post-traditional, and non-elite institutions.  Mettler’s caste system is vertical, with the wealthier people and institutions at the top. Conversely, the post-traditional higher education world, both non-profit and for-profit, aims to lay that vertical “pecking order” on its side, making it horizontal. With this approach, choosing a school has fewer negative status consequences and there is a more positive focus on quality redefined: learning outcomes, personal growth, development, and opportunities for employment.
But Mettler’s post attacks these new forms of education, particularly proprietary colleges.  All new forms of institutions are suspect by the elites precisely because they serve under-served populations in new and different ways.  In many cases these alternative forms of education are the only way these students will be able to pursue higher education.  For example, the pioneering students who enrolled at the Community College of Vermont could not get to or afford the State Colleges. Nor would they have been admitted had they applied.

This “Barbarians at the Gate” argument has been made since the Morrill Land Grant Act was passed 150 years ago. As far as the elites were concerned, land grant colleges were going to destroy higher education by democratizing it. This same argument was later made against the G.I Bill and community colleges.  Now it appears to be students in the proprietary sector’s time “at the gate.”

Unfortunately, this reasoning threatens marginalized learners whose predominant option is the newer institutional forms which serve them.  It is post-traditional and proprietary institutions, along with community colleges, that serve the under-served.  In fact, the vast majority of adult learners who attend and graduate from proprietary colleges carry as many or more risk factors as those attending community colleges.  At the end of the day, marginalized learners attend colleges they have access to, can afford, and where they feel comfortable.

Now, what about Mettler’s alleged “bad actors”? Are we really to believe that quality is defined by governance structure, with proprietary schools living on the dark side and non-profits of all stripes living in the light? Is a non-profit college that does not pay local property taxes, or a public institution that receives state appropriations any less responsible for graduating its students than a tax-paying, for-profit institution? Are major universities, where undergraduate tuition is inflated to subsidize graduate programs and research, somehow more virtuous than institutions that focus on teaching and learning?

Taking anyone’s money – the taxpayer’s or the learner’s – and failing to deliver on the promise of a quality and meaningful education is serious business. But serving high-risk students should be a reason for commendation, not a rationale for punitive measures. Educating to high standards should be the objective of all policy, not simply policies aimed at the proprietary sector. All institutions of higher learning should measure up. But a yardstick that fails to account for the different types of students served by different types of institutions is a calibrator of false status.

I believe that a wide array of approaches is needed to serve the needs of our increasingly diverse populations more effectively.  For-profit and post-traditional colleges should be welcome at the table and held accountable for the outcomes they produce with the learners they serve.  Their results deserve scrutiny, like all institutions of higher education, but let’s make apples-to-apples comparisons.  Otherwise, we are only cementing the caste system, which, as Mettler so correctly observes, “unlevels” opportunity in the American college experience.

Under-served populations and the institutions which serve them aren’t the “barbarians at the gate.”  They are real people whose real needs have been ignored for too long.  And the post-traditional, proprietary, and community college sectors are a big part of the answer to their needs.

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