Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Avoiding the Catch-22

The NY Times Editorial page takes aim at online education on Monday. It turns out that studies show that more students in online classes drop out of classes, more fail, and fewer graduate. This is not surprising. But one might ask so what? Online courses are proliferating and will continue to do so because they are less expensive. For some students, they may even be better. But for high-risk students, the track record is poor. Here is the Times editorial board’s conclusion:

A five-year study, issued in 2011, tracked 51,000 students enrolled in Washington State community and technical colleges. It found that those who took higher proportions of online courses were less likely to earn degrees or transfer to four-year colleges. The reasons for such failures are well known. Many students, for example, show up at college (or junior college) unprepared to learn, unable to manage time and having failed to master basics like math and English.

Lacking confidence as well as competence, these students need engagement with their teachers to feel comfortable and to succeed. What they often get online is estrangement from the instructor who rarely can get to know them directly. Colleges need to improve online courses before they deploy them widely. Moreover, schools with high numbers of students needing remedial education should consider requiring at least some students to demonstrate success in traditional classes before allowing them to take online courses.

The Times’ solution is based on a common lament, that young people are caught in a double bind, what Joseph Stiglitz recently described as a Catch-22:

Without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.

Stiglitz, like the NY Times editorial board, worries that the current higher educational system is poorly suited to addressing questions of class. Both are right.  College education is too expensive for most poor and even many middle class Americans. This is especially true since many people spend much of their time (and money) in college taking remedial courses where they learn little of extra value. And when these at-risk students do attend college, they too often emerge with life-altering debt rather than a transformative education.

What both the Times and Stiglitz want is to change the system of college and how we subsidize it. I leave aside the argument over whether government subsidies for higher education are the right answer. That becomes a question of how much money we want to pay as a percentage of our GDP.

But what does seem strange is that we continue to see our colleges as the problem here. As the Times rightly sees, the problem is that students arrive at college unprepared.

Our overburdened public colleges must spend a fortune on remedial education for students. And then we charge students for this remedial education, which frequently fails, leaving them with debt and nothing else.

Whereas colleges cost students money, high school education is typically free. The first line of attack on inequality through education should be reforming and improving high schools. Yet no one speaks about that. President Obama’s education initiatives focus on early pre-school education and community college. High Schools are left out. But if we could divert the huge resources currently spent on remedial college education to high schools, maybe college wouldn’t be so necessary. And maybe those who attended college might then be ready to work at a college level.


To read more on the idea of shifting funds from college to high school education, click here. To read more from the Hannah Arendt Center blog about online education, click here  and here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.