As I have discussed in previous essays, Florida state universities now operate under a performance based model of funding and Florida A&M University (FAMU), my university, has performed poorly in regards to the state standards. One area of poor performance is the six-year graduation rate. Another is student loan debts, both in terms of the debt accrued and the default rate. Currently, it has been claimed that FAMU students default on their loans at three times the state average. It has been claimed that one explanation for this poor performance is that FAMU accepts students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. It has also been suggested that such students would be better served by community colleges.
I will not dispute the claim that FAMU admits some students who are ill-prepared for a four year university. This is because the claim is true. One reason it is true is because FAMU has had an historical mission of providing an opportunity for the disadvantaged. One part of this mission is shown by the fact FAMU is an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). Before desegregation, HBCUs provided almost the only higher education opportunities for African-Americans. After the end of legal segregation, HBCUs still served a vital role in providing such opportunities. As predominantly white colleges (PWCs, also known as Predominantly White Institutions or PWIs) became more integrated, people began to argue that this old mission of HBCUs was no longer relevant. After all, if black students can attend any school they wish and racism is no longer a factor, then one might say “mission accomplished.” Unfortunately, as I discussed in my essay on performance based funding and race, race is still a significant factor in regards to economic and academic success. As such, while the dismantling of some barriers to education is to be lauded, many more still remain. Among these are numerous economic barriers.
While it could be argued that FAMU no longer has a mission to offset racism in America by offering educational opportunities to African Americans, FAMU has also had a longstanding mission of serving the economically disadvantaged. Students who come from a background of economic and academic disadvantage (these are almost always tightly linked) face many challenges to graduating and, not surprisingly, are more likely to have student debt. It is well worth considering why disadvantaged students generally perform worse than other students.
One rather obvious factor is that students from poor schools (which tend to be located in economically disadvantaged areas) will face the challenge imposed by being poorly prepared for college. While individuals can overcome this through natural talent and special effort, this poor preparation is analogous to a weight chained to a runner’s leg—she will have to run so much harder to go as fast as others who are not dragging such a burden.
Another especially disturbing factor is that poverty has been found to negatively impact brain development as well as academic performance. Poverty is quite literally damaging American children and thus doing harm to the future of America. Unfortunately, for many politicians the concern regarding children seems to end at birth, so this problem is unlikely to be seriously addressed in the existing political climate.
A third factor is that disadvantaged students, being disadvantaged, generally need to borrow more money than students from wealthier backgrounds. This entails more student debt on the part of the disadvantaged. It also creates a rather vicious scenario: a student who needs to take out loans is more likely to end up with financial challenges in school. A student who is challenged financially is more likely to drop out than a student who is not. Students who drop out are more likely to default on student loans. This provides a rather clear explanation of why disadvantaged students have low completion rates, high debts and high default rates.
As might be expected, seventy percent of African American students say that student debt is their main reason for dropping out. In contrast, less than fifty percent of white students make this claim. This is quite consistent with my own study of student performance: over the course of my study, the primary reason for missing class was work and the main reason students gave for not graduating was financial.
In terms of why students are taking out more and larger loans than any time in United States history, there are some easy and obvious answers. One is the fact that incomes for all but the wealthiest have, at best, stagnated for nearly thirty years—as such people have less money to spend on college and thus need to take out loans. Students also need to work more in college, which can make attending class and completing work challenging.
A second is the fact that state funding for education has dropped substantially as a result of both ideology and the great recession. Even after the broader economy rebounded, education funding was not restored and some states continued to cut funding. With less state funding, universities raised tuition and this, naturally enough, has led to an increased need for students to work more (which impacts graduation rates) and take out loans—which leads to debt. It is a cruel irony that the very people who have cut education funding judge schools by how well they handle the problems such cuts have created or acerbated. To use an analogy, this is like taking a runner’s shoes, striking her legs with a baton and then threatening to do more damage unless she runs even faster than before. This is madness.
Given the factors discussed above, it should hardly be surprising that a school, such as FAMU, that intentionally enrolls disadvantaged students will perform worse than schools who do not have such a mission. Since FAMU’s funding is linked to its performance, it is rather important to consider solutions to this situation.
The state legislature could address this problem in various ways. One approach would be to address the economic and academic inequality that creates disadvantaged students. This, however, seems extremely unlikely in the present political climate.
A second approach would be to restore the education funding that was cut (or even increase it beyond that). However, the current ideological commitment is to cutting education funding while, at the same time, expressing shocked dismay at greater student debt and punishing schools for not solving this problem by taking away even more money. As such, it seems reasonable, though rather unfortunate, to dismiss the state legislature as a source of solutions and instead regard them as a major part of the problem.
For schools such as FAMU, one option is to change the mission of the school to one that matches the views of those providing oversight of the schools. This revised mission would not include providing opportunities to the disadvantaged. Rather, it would involve improving the graduation and debt numbers by ceasing to admit disadvantaged students. On the plus side, this would enable FAMU to improve its performance relative to the goals imposed by the legislature that helped create the student debt crisis and helped lower graduation rates. However, the performance based funding system imposed by the state must have losers, so even if FAMU improved, it might not improve enough to push some other schools to the bottom. Even if it does improve, it would merely shift the punishment of the state to some other school—which is certainly morally problematic (rather like the old joke about not needing to outrun the bear, just one other person).
On the minus side, abandoning this historic mission of providing opportunity to the disadvantaged would mean abandoning people to the mire of poverty and the desert that is a lack of opportunity. As a professor who teaches ethics, this strikes me as morally reprehensible—especially in a country whose politicians cry endlessly about opportunity, economic mobility and the American Dream.
As has been well-established by history, a college degree is a way to achieve greater economic success and it has been a ladder out of poverty for many previous generations of Americans. To kick away this ladder would be to say that the American Dream is only for those lucky enough to already be well off and the rest can simply stay at the bottom. This could be done, but if it is done, then we must no longer speak of this being a land of opportunity for everyone.
It might be countered that, as was suggested, the disadvantaged students could attend a two-year college. While this idea has become something of a talking point, the evidence shows that it is actually not a low cost, low debt option for students. Because of higher education costs and reduced state support, disadvantaged students will still need to take out loans to attend such schools and will face the same general challenges they would face at a four-year institute.
It could also be countered that enrolling disadvantaged students does not actually help them. After all, if they do not graduate and end up accumulating considerable debt, then it could be argued they would have been better off never making the attempt. They could, instead, go straight to work right out of high school (or complete some technical training). The money that would have been spent on them could be spent on students more likely to succeed (because they already enjoy advantages).
While I am committed to the value of education, this is a point well worth considering. If an objective and fair assessment of the data shows that disadvantage students are worse off when they attempt a four-year degree, then it would make no sense to admit such students. However, if the data shows that providing such students with this opportunity does provide positive benefits, then it would seem a good idea to continue to offer people a chance to escape to a better future from a disadvantaged past. This is, of course, a matter of value—how much is it worth to society to provide such opportunities and at what point should we, as a people, say that the cost is too high to give our fellow Americans an opportunity? Or, put another way, how much are we willing to spend to be able to speak about the American Dream without speaking lies?