Commentary: Colleges price out middle class

Kansas City StarApril 21, 2011 

The wildest college admissions story of the year involves a 4-year-old.

The tyke's mother sued a New York City preschool, claiming it hadn't lived up to advertising claims that the $19,000-a-year tuition would set her child on the path to the promised land.

Instead of drilling for the intelligence test needed for admittance to a prestigious elementary school, it seems the girl spent most of her time — believe it, folks — playing.

"It is no secret that getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school," the mom said in a legal brief.

Well, Harvard admitted only 6.2 percent of its applicants this year, so perhaps this mother is on to something.

In other news, waiting lists for selective schools are at an all-time high. And being raised by a tiger mother paid off. The daughter of Amy Chua — the Chinese mom who recounted her stern childrearing methods in a controversial book — was accepted by Harvard and Yale.

These are the stories we hear this time of year, as the acceptance and rejection notices from top-flight colleges roll in.

It's an entertaining exercise to watch. But from a public policy perspective, it's almost irrelevant.

Dips in endowments aside, the Ivies and their students will be fine. Even their rejects will get by. Kids who aspire to the Ivy League usually have plenty of other choices.

Here are some more meaningful higher education stories to keep an eye on:

  • Students at all four campuses of the University of Missouri system will pay higher tuition next year. Increases also may be in store at some Kansas universities. A report last year by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni warned that if tuition at Big 12 universities continues to increase at the rate seen in the last five years, the average family with a middle school student can expect to spend a quarter of its annual household income on that child's college tuition.

  • In a milestone moment last year, the total amount of debt owed on student loans moved ahead of the nation's collective credit card debt. Students who borrowed money left college last year with an average debt of $24,000. And many are asking whether a college degree still carries enough weight in the job market to make the cost worthwhile.
  • Every autumn, on community college campuses, students and teachers alike weep over test results that show too many high school graduates lack the reading and math skills to enroll in college courses. These students are channeled into remedial classes — an expense they hadn't budgeted for. Lack of preparedness is a big reason that less than a third of the students who enroll in a community college with the goal of attaining a two-year degree ever receive one.
  • Four-year colleges also struggle with completion rates. Four of 10 students who enroll at a college or university don't earn a bachelor's degree within six years.

    For too long, we've been focused on the campus entrance. "Go to college," we've told our young men and women, holding out a degree as the key to the American dream. We've offered them scholarships and grants and loans and applauded them as they've walked through the front gate. But no one pays much attention when they slip quietly out the back door with no degree and tons of debt.

    That's starting to change. The Obama administration has asked states to come up with new approaches for improving college completion rates. The Gates Foundation is offering incentives to community colleges to work on the problem.

    Those are good moves, but they confine themselves to the conventional wisdom that at least some college is good for everyone. A growing number of counselors, economists and, yes, academics, are questioning that wisdom, and instead recommending more apprenticeships and vocational training to prepare students for middle-skills jobs.

    The solution isn't one approach or another. Students need options other than college and those who opt for college need support once they get there.

    College admissions dramas make for good reading. Jobs and financial security make for happier endings.

    ABOUT THE WRITER

    Barbara Shelly is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by e-mail at bshelly@kcstar.com.

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