Entitlement U.S.A.: Colleges as Attendance Centers

Several years ago, I chuckled when I dropped my young daughter off at a friend’s elementary school. In fact, the school was named an “Attendance Center.” I never learned why “school” was suddenly out of fashion.

“Attendance Center.” How apt a phrase for what is happening in higher education, as every politician and president (Bush and Obama included) promise “more, more, more!”

A new book is getting acclaim for documenting how simply funding more college “attendees” is a waste of money: Jackson Toby, The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should be Based on Student Performance. Toby hammers home the message that always shocks people when I tell them that most of those who go to college will never graduate with a degree. Moreover, mere “attendance” at a college does little to improve earnings and leaves many in debt. The situation is even worse at community colleges, where politicians at the state and national levels are heavily subsidizing two-year college education. By accepting all, the old whip of “working hard in high school” to “get into college” is gone—every K-12 student knows they can go to college whether they prepare themselves or not.

The following excerpt from an article on the abysmal state of community college “attendance centers” highlights how much worse the problem is at that level:

A cursory look at the data is not encouraging. Although 41 percent of America’s college-bound students enter community colleges each year, only 28 percent of this cohort actually complete their studies and earn a degree, an even more dismal outcome than that displayed at the nation’s baccalaureate colleges, where 56 percent manage to graduate. These depressing statistics haven’t dampened the general consensus favoring support of community colleges because proponents appear to believe that college “access” trumps successful college completion and that “some college is better than none.” Refuting the latter point, U.S. community college non-graduates have only marginally higher earnings and lower unemployment rates than high school graduates and do far less well than their counterparts that manage to complete their studies. The disappointing outcomes at community colleges are to some extent hard-wired into four aspects of their design. These institutions are proudly and aggressively “open admissions” which means that there are no academic criteria to get in except, in most places, a high school diploma. . . .

Readers interested in learning the graduation rates (and other vital statistics) of any college in America can find it here. Will financial aid be tied to merit rather than a free lunch for everyone, regardless of performance? The political incentives work against any such reform. After all, the citizens of Entitlement U.S.A. believe it is their unalienable right to a discounted (or free) college education. Furthermore, politicians count votes and “something for nothing” is always popular. On we go . . .

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, Professor of History at Southern Illinois University, and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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