More Adult College Students: A Frightening Proposal

A recent press release by the Center for Law and Social Policy — an organization that develops and advocates for policies at the federal, state, and local levels that improve the lives of low-income people, and which focuses on policies that strengthen families and create pathways to education and work — has me worried. The organization has a laudable mission, but the conclusions of its press release — or rather the omissions from the report — are, I believe, deeply flawed.

The press release, entitled "Not Just Kid Stuff Anymore: The Economic Imperative for More Adults to Complete College," finds that over the next decade, there will be no national growth in the number of high-school graduates, and some states will see the number of high-school graduates decline by as much as 18 to 20 percent. The report includes state-by-state projections of the number of high-school graduates through 2020. Their recommendation: "The country’s economic competitiveness rests on more people accessing postsecondary education and credentials," said Patrick Kelly, a senior associate at NCHEMS and co-author of the report. "And with the aging of our population and decline in number of recent high-school graduates entering college and the workforce, we need to make sure even more adults and nontraditional students have the skills they need to fill tomorrow’s jobs."

It’s a simple demographic argument: Fewer high-school graduates mean fewer traditional college students. But the causes of my anxiety are threefold. First, the notion that all Americans are entitled to a college education, regardless of their level of preparation, the degree of their intellectual curiosity, and, most basically, their ability to afford increasing tuitions, is increasingly unreasonable. It rests on an uncritically accepted assumption, an odd amalgam of American exceptionalism and the delusion that the United States doesn’t have a markedly distinct class system.

Just because there will be fewer traditional-aged college students in the coming years, must we make up the shortfall by populating colleges with adult students? Must everyone go to college in order for us to compete in the global economy? India and China certainly don’t take that position.

Second, the report calls for adult college students to finish their degrees. Across the board, the U.S. college-graduation rate currently stands at about 50 percent, according to The New York Times. Among other wealthy nations, only Italy has a lower graduation rate. That statistic is appalling enough, but further details are even worse: just 20 percent of first-time students at public community colleges get a degree or certificate within three years.

Non-traditional students, however one defines them (with a partner, with children, with full-time jobs), can, I imagine, only face even tougher odds. So the exhortation that we send more adults to college rings hollow, since it’s so clear that very few of them will actually complete a degree program and therefore put themselves in a position for a good job in the new global economy.

And many of those who don’t complete their degrees will find themselves in the worst possible economic crunch—they’ll essentially be high-school graduates with unaffordable amounts of debt racked up while they were in college.

Finally (a hobbyhorse of mine you may have come to see regularly), adult higher education feeds the for-profit machine. I’m hardly against people in the 25 and up age category going to college—it’s admirable, and in some cases even inspiring. The fact is, though, that traditional colleges and universities aren’t set up to deal with an influx of non-traditonal students, but for-profit higher-education companies are, and always have been. From the moment that Apollo Group (parent company of the University of Phoenix) went public in 1994, for-profit colleges have made higher education extremely convenient (course offerings year round, a vast online-learning infrastructure). These features are ideally suited to adult students, most of whom are likely working full-time and really need that convenience. But the convenience comes at a high price. I’ve outlined many of the drawbacks of the for-profit higher education industry. And I’m not alone. Senator Tom Harkin’s committee and the GAO (in the wake of its investigation) have expressed the deep skepticism that I feel.

So I find myself in opposition to the CLASP report. It’s fundamental assumptions are, in my view, ill-considered if not simply wrong. The shortfall of traditional students in the near future seems to be an incontrovertible fact. What we do about it is another issue.


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