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The Black Secret of Higher Education

By Professor Doom

I’ve seen many articles wailing about the uselessness of college degrees, but there’s a bigger scam going on in college than useless degrees…a much, much, bigger scam that’s so far been kept secret from even the most diligent opponents of higher education. Let’s expose that secret today.

A great scam needs suckers, and the more suckers, the better. It didn’t take long before administrators realized that the big, big money was in broadening the market, and through their efforts student enrollment has more than doubled since the 80s.

In today’s college environment, most anyone can get accepted into an institution of higher learning. Student loans are not strictly acquired by people who “want to learn,” even if they don’t know all that much to begin with. Instead, student loans are granted to anyone who can “check a box saying you are a degree seeking student.”

The easily acquired and plentiful student loan scheme means anyone can go to college, but what if the student has little in the way of academic skill or interest? A popular TV commercial hawking college education has the would-be student sing about not doing great in high school—enough to keep a student out of college, years ago, and evidence the old myth is still alive.

It’s not just late night TV commercials that target these potential students for enrollment, although there has always been some option for remedial classes at college or university. Only a few such classes were offered, since “in the good old days,” it was rare for students lacking in basic skills to nonetheless gain admittance to an institution. A student without basic reading, writing, or arithmetic skills could get in, but thirty years ago, if he didn’t catch up quickly, the university would prevent him from destroying his finances and life. Nowadays there are many sections of remedial courses taught each semester, often more than sections for “college” courses. These courses generally move slower than normal courses, since administration thinks when a student is behind, he’ll catch up by slowing down. These poor souls spend years wandering from one remedial course to another, only to get destroyed by the pace of real college courses when they finally make it of remedial programs.

Administrations at many institutions have become very successful at talking people into checking that box, and remedial--administration likes to use the word “developmental”, but I’ll stick with the correct word, “remedial”—students have come to dominate “higher education” now. Around half of incoming students require remediation. It would be a clear majority, but college material has been defined down quite a bit (the first year courses I took in the 80s are now second or third year courses, and even some graduate courses are little different than what used to be first year courses).

College student population has more than doubled…but most students are remedial. It follows then that the growth of the student base in higher education has been due to the elimination of standards.

Having a great number of students going into remedial courses looks bad for institutions of higher education, but administration tirelessly works to fix this problem, but not in a way that a person of integrity might think:

We’re going to reduce the score necessary on the placement test to get into College Algebra so that even the weakest students will be told they can skip developmental courses if they want to. They’ll still be competitive.”

--Administrator, explaining a clever plan to reduce the number of students taking remedial courses. Until I heard this, I had no idea that getting an education was a competition. This change in policy led to several disastrous years in the entry level mathematics courses.

So what is a remedial student? When a student enrolls, often he’ll take some sort of placement test to see where he fits as far as reading, writing, and mathematical skills. There are many sorts of tests, each with their own special scoring system, ultimately translated into either “good enough for a college level course” or “should take a remedial course.” Most institutions favor some form of standardized test, paying a dollar or two per student for the privilege of having an independent company quickly grade and administer the test online.

These tests are far from perfect, but have been around for years, with constant improvement by many private corporations legitimately interested in providing a better, more accurate product. They are quick, cheap, and about 95% accurate for determining which course a student should take. Quick and cheap are important factors—the days of real “entrance examinations” for incoming college students are long over, students want to be admitted quickly, and administration complies. The 95% accuracy might sound very good, but it means that in every classroom of at least 20 students, you’ll expect one student was misdiagnosed by the test. Not perfect, but good enough, all things considered.

As hinted in the above quote, administration hates losing control of students to placement tests, and is always looking into ways to gain more control. The most likely way in the future will be through PARCC, a placement test that will allow students to place out of placement tests. It doesn’t take a calculator to see the amount of money being poured into re-inventing and centralizing the placement tests is huge. Administration clearly wants this control, and a reasonable person might wonder how well they could be trusted with this power.

A student that does poorly on a placement test, no matter how poorly, is never turned away. Never. “No problem,” says college admissions, “you’ll just need to take a developmental course or two and then you’ll be fine!”…as though a person that’s blown off education for twelve years is really going to make it all up in a few months.

So higher education is mostly about remediation and has been for years, but does it really help these people? One might think that the answer has to do with those useless degrees people talk about, but only the lucky ones get a useless degree. The answer comes from the black secret of higher education:

Fewer than 1 in 10 remedial students will get a 2 year degree within 3 years1.

That’s above a 90% failure rate, quite possibly after the college soaks up $20,000 or more in loans. All the growth in higher education is in remedial students, and they’re being horribly abused by the system.

If there were any integrity to higher education, administrators would look at the 90% victimization rate and say “we need to stop doing this.” Instead, the bar just gets moved lower and lower and lower…administration responds to failure by increasing the amount of failure. One might well conclude they just want the checks and don’t actually care about the students at all.

Let’s compare this kind of abuse of the customer to another industry. Depending on various factors, around 20% of smokers get lung cancer eventually over the course of a lifetime…this rate is so high that the institutions which promote smoking, tobacco companies, are considered evil for creating so many victims.

More than 90% of remedial students waste years of their lives and bury themselves in debt by getting sucked into higher education…what word describes the institutions that create a much higher rate of victims than tobacco companies?

Here’s a chart to put things in perspective for a remedial student:

>90% Chance of a remedial student wasting 3 years of his life with nothing to show for it

67% Chance of dying after a stab wound to the heart

52% Chance of dying after a stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis

30% Chance of dying within 5 years of a heart transplant

20% Chance of a smoker getting lung cancer

<10% Chance of dying after being hit by lightning

Now, getting stabbed in the heart or struck by lightning are activities people should avoid…and yet remedial students are actually encouraged to go to college. There are surgeon general’s warnings on packs of cigarettes. Why aren’t remedial students warned about the disastrous side-effects of college loans?

40% of students that start in remedial never make it out of remedial courses. Of course, the college gets the loan money, while the student gets the debt, so the college has no reason to tell the student such depressing information…he might change his mind about going to college, and there goes that sweet check.

Someone’s making a lot of money off this. Not us.”

--Mathematics department head, at another daylong meeting addressing ways to improve remediation.

Added to the high failure rate is a massive double-dipping factor. When a community is being sold on opening up a community college for “higher education,” or paying for a university to expand its capacity for students, it’s never mentioned that the majority of the courses will be high school (or lower) level material—material the community already paid for their children to learn in high school or earlier. The community’s tax dollars pay for the institution, which re-teaches (at best) the material that the students didn’t want to learn when they were children.

The people building these institutions don’t warn about the double-dipping to the communities supporting them. Likewise, the remedial students will never be warned about the grim odds and disaster they face when they check the box asking for student loans.

Higher education loan programs were sold to the American public as an opportunity to advance into a better economic status, but it’s turned into a massive scheme to take advantage of the most vulnerable members of the public, indebting them so deeply, so permanently, that they’ll never be anything but broke. Is this what higher education is supposed to be all about?

Think about it.


  1. See Remediation: Higher Education's Bridge to Nowhere, available online; the results come from looking at data from millions of students. Everyone in education has known for years that remediation is a disaster, but here’s a study that shows it unarguably.





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