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The Inability of Poor Students to Navigate College is Not the Problem, College is the Problem

2012 December 24
by Eric Horowitz

This weekend’s NYT story on the plight of three girls from low-income families who excelled in high school but struggled once they got to college has quickly been labelled as “must read.” Though the empathy shown towards the girls by the loud response to the story is real, it is also shallow. It reeks of an “aw shucks, that’s a shame, things should be different, we should do more to help” attitude, but nobody dares to truly question the broader environment that allowed the story’s events to take place. Nobody questions a system that every decision maker in America came through, but which only works for 20%-40% of the country. Nobody questions a system that’s supposed to be the key American vehicle for social mobility, but which often has a sticker price of $150,000. If I told you a poor African country had a system that allowed impoverished villagers to have a middle class life in the city, but that it cost $20,000 to take part in it, you would immediately say it’s perverse. Yet that’s essentially what we have in America.

There are a number of reasons people rarely point this out. First, because our university system has been around for so long in it’s current form, nobody thinks there’s another way. Listen to any politician talk about education and it’s always about getting more kids to graduate from college. From a practical standpoint, that’s the best thing a young person can do today, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good system. We’ve irrationally stamped the bachelor’s degree as the unquestioned end goal without wondering whether awarding a B.A. to young people who score well on a standardized test and complete four years of college is an efficient system for providing social mobility. Why don’t we seriously consider whether a system that was built to efficiently stratify society 50 years ago is still the right system to do that today?

Psychologically, different variations of the status quo bias also make it difficult to imagine another system. Because powerful people all went to college, they consciously believe that if it worked for them it can work for anybody. There’s also anxiety that any change to the system will detract value from a person’s current credentials. From an unconscious standpoint it’s also hard to question the current system. People want to believe they live in a just society, and admitting that our system of social mobility was designed by elites, for elites, and disproportionately benefits elites causes a lot of psychological discomfort. It’s easier to assume the current system is fine and all we need are marginal improvements that help it better serve poor people.

At some point in the future I’ll want to go into more detail about specific ideas for building a more equitable higher education system, but if we’re serious about creating more opportunity for poor students there are four key long-term radical changes we should be thinking about:

1. Unbundle the bachelor’s degree. People understand that bundles of cable channels screw the consumer by forcing them to pay for channels they don’t want in order to get the channels they do want. Bachelor’s degrees function the same way. For example, at many selective universities students are required to take three semesters of a foreign language in order to graduate. If you’re a poor kid who wants to be an engineer or a psychologist, this is an unnecessary burden. Knowing a foreign language appeals to our elitist notion of a liberal arts education, but it’s unfair to impose those ideals on the 70% of society that can’t afford to purchase them. In the long run we need a system that awards “mini-degrees” based on smaller bundles of classes. For example, instead of a B.A. from Harvard, a student could be a “Harvard Level 7 Mechanical Engineer,” “Harvard Level 2 Historian,” and a “Harvard Level 5 Physicist.” Unbundling the components that make up a Bachelor’s degree will allow students to pay for exactly as much education as they want. It would also allow professionals who want more education to get the necessary credentials from two or three classes rather than an entire post-graduate program.

2. End College Admissions & 3. Make Classes Free. Currently, geographical and financial roadblocks restrict the number of people who have the opportunity to get the word “Harvard” on their resume. Yet many of these people, whether they live in a poor Indian village or an American community without social supports, have the ability to excel in Harvard classes and earn the mini-degrees mentioned above (if not a full B.A.). Imagine that any of these people could go on the internet, take a series of free Harvard classes, and then take a series of tests that would grant them a valid credential for their work in those classes. Schools would be able to maintain their reputations by making the tests so difficult the passing rates match their admission rates. However schools decide to do it, we should have a system where if you’re smart enough to prove you know something, you should be able to prove it. It’s that simple.

4. Charge Money For Acquiring the Credential, Not For the Learning. Giving free education to anybody who wants is probably not a sustainable financial model, so to make money universities can charge for the opportunity to take their assessments. Under this system, instead of having to pay up front and without knowing whether you’ll reap the benefits of passing the class, you can take the class for free and only pay money if you believe you learned something and want to prove it. Schools will have to navigate various tradeoffs involving revenue, test difficulty, and academic reputation, but the opportunity to sell credentials to entire world has to potential to create a monetary windfall. Of course there’s also no reason our current higher education system can’t exist alongside this new version. If the American upper-class believes small in-person classes and the social development provided by life on college campuses is worth $30,000 a year, they can still pay for that experience. But that shouldn’t be the only way to jump into a higher income bracket.

The bottom line is that we should have a system where anybody can take any class at any university, and if they pass an assessment, be able to advertise their knowledge to employers in a manner that’s easily understood. Any system that prevents that from happening is putting the financial well-being of universities and the American upper class ahead of the financial well-being of the American poor. The steps outlined above are a radical transformation that could only take place over many years, but that should be our end goal, not making marginal improvements to how poor students can navigate our current higher education system.

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