Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Access and Completion

Joe Stiglitz' recent article about equality of opportunity raises an important tension in the realm of higher ed. I'm very conflicted myself. On the one hand, there's something worthwhile about driving down costs in order to increase access so that any potential student, regardless of income, can afford to better their life prospects through education. After all, access to higher ed is the great leveler in our society. As Stiglitz suggests though, this isn't working as it once was. Indeed I fear that the lower cost version of higher education will be an inferior one, and yet financed entirely through student loans which don't have nearly the same return on investment when not coupled with the social capital one earns from a more traditional higher education. I fear that real access--the kind that allows equal opportunity for anyone from any background--is getting drowned under the weight of the completion agenda that virtually screams that the real issue is completion as if we've somehow solved the access problem. But access is a problem and has become an even greater problem since the financial collapse of 2008 that has lead to state governments shifting more of the costs of higher education onto students. Yet those students confront a job environment in which it is difficult to land the kind of higher paying job that has been promised to college graduates and which are necessary to pay back all those student loans. Completion is important, and I support it. Equal access is important though too, and I hope that all the focus on completion doesn't leave us with different tiers of access. After all, different qualitative access to higher education may lead to a society that doesn't genuinely promote equality of opportunity, at least not to the level that I'd think is socially optimal. Instead, we could almost unwittingly end up supporting government policies that merely perpetuate the trends that already reward those with privilege and influence. 

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