Schools for Scandal

It’s in the nature of social progress that conditions which today strike us as obviously morally outrageous—that women were not allowed to vote or blacks to be served at restaurants—were once considered the natural order of things. Three decades ago, almost no one thought it unjust that there were no parking spaces reserved for the disabled, or that airline passengers were forced to breathe in other people’s cigarette smoke. We are now in the middle of a similar mass awakening to the unfairness of banning gays from marrying and serving openly in the military.

What is the next great injustice that we do not yet recognize as such but soon will? How about the way the higher education system screws millions of lower-income students? In this current issue, our annual College Guide, Benjamin Miller and Phuong Ly take a hard look at the roughly 200 colleges and universities in America with the worst records of graduating their students (page 20). These colleges make up 15 percent of the total and disproportionately serve working-class and minority students. They are akin to the 15 percent of high schools Barack Obama and other would-be reformers have dubbed “dropout factories” for having scandalously low graduation rates—on average about 50 percent. But the average graduation rate at the 200 “college dropout factories” is 26 percent. America’s worst colleges, in other words, are twice as bad as its worst high schools.

This is an appalling waste of human talent. The students who go to these colleges are, by and large, strivers. They are the ones who made it out of the bad high schools. When they then try to improve their lives by seeking a college degree, they are steered—via relative tuition costs and geographic convenience—toward precisely those institutions where they are most likely to fail. Lest you think the fault lies not with the colleges but with the students’ lack of academic preparedness, consider this: enroll those same students in different colleges and their chances of graduating double or even triple. Most Americans understand that there is something profoundly unjust about poor kids being stuck in failing K-12 schools, and as a nation we’ve spent decades trying to do something about it—through desegregation, Title I, No Child Left Behind, and so on. But the existence of hundreds of failing colleges isn’t seen as a scandal. In fact it isn’t seen at all. This blindness is in large part due to attitudes we have about higher education: that it’s not for everyone, and that those who pursue it are adults and therefore responsible for their own success or failure. These attitudes aren’t altogether wrong, but an unthinking adherence to them has meant giving a free pass to schools that effectively rob students of a chance to earn the college degrees they need to enter the middle class.

Our lack of awareness about what’s happening at the worst colleges is also a product of a media that devotes nearly all of its attention to what are traditionally thought of as the “best” schools. This preoccupation is made worse by the U.S. News college guide. U.S. News ranks schools according to measures, like reputation and SAT scores, that are guaranteed to reinforce the conventional hierarchy. Since 2005, we’ve offered an alternative ranking based on a very different criterion: how much public value colleges deliver for the billions of taxpayer dollars we give them every year (page 15). Looking at schools this way leads to a quite different hierarchy, with schools like Yale and Princeton eating the dust of places like UC San Diego and South Carolina State. A media infatuated with prestige misses the larger purpose—and the larger story—of higher education. It allows a place like George Washington University to be seen as elite when, by our lights, the school is just expensive (page 42). And it is unlikely to notice promising new developments, like the year-old University of Minnesota Rochester, an experimental state campus that has set out to offer a flagship quality education at a third the cost (page 27).

This year we also take a look at another class of schools that other guides typically ignore: community colleges (page 47). The fifty best community colleges in our ranking are providing a first-class education at a reasonable cost to minority and working-class students who desperately need a leg up in these tough economic times. That success is further proof that the dropout factories have no excuse for their failure—and that we have no excuse for not being mad as hell about it.

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Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.