Should Everyone go to College? (No. 1)

MortarboardThis is the first of a series of occasional posts that will deal with this question.

Open admissions, the policy of permitting students to enroll in a college or university without regard to academic qualifications, grew largely out of the turmoil of the period 1965-75 that coincided with America’s intense involvement in the Vietnam War. A college degree, it had long been known, was the major pathway to upward economic and social mobility, and anyone who wanted one, said the activists, should have access to the institution of his or her choice.

Only a handful of the nation’s 4,064 degree-granting institutions of higher education, perhaps no more than 150, have admission standards that are highly competitive. Most colleges and universities, state and private, have open admissions or nearly open admissions.

“Professor X” works part-time in the evenings as an adjunct instructor of English. He teaches two courses, Introduction to College Writing (English 101) and Introduction to College Literature (English 102), at a small private college and at a community college in the northeastern United States. He believes that the idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. In an article entitled, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” that appeared in the June 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Professor X explains:

Mine are the students whose applications show indifferent grades and have blank spaces where the extracurricular activities would go. They chose their college based not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on MapQuest; in their ideal academic geometry, college is located at a convenient spot between work and home…

My students take English 101 and English 102 not because they want to but because they must. Both colleges I teach at require that all students, no matter what their majors or career objectives, pass these two courses…

I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity—my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over. What actually happens is that nothing happens…

There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass…No one has drawn up the flowchart and seen that, although more-widespread college admission is a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself, there is one point of irreconcilable conflict in the system, and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment…

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish…[But] I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

You can read Professor X’s entire essay here.

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