The Right to Fail at College

Success is possible in the 21st century without post-high school training or education, but it’s increasingly unlikely.  (Success is hard to define; but in this context, I am largely thinking success in terms of employment and compensation; that is not the final say on success, there are many other ways of valuing and understanding success as the Happiness Index indicates.   With the context of employment and compensation, I then would say that success is being gainfully employed in a way that is not directly exploitative to one’s mental and physical health while simultaneously covering one’s needs and a reasonable amount of extra compensation for savings and basic upkeep of one’s life; it’s vague, but that’s largely because success will look different for everyone).  In the globalized interconnected world, more training is needed to fulfill the more complex jobs of that world and we are not giving people a good opportunity to fulfill those jobs (or their own potential for that matter).

In an ideal world, I would love to see advance education given the same access level as elementary, middle, and high school.  I can only see a more educated population being better for us.  After all, as Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn point out in Half the Sky with regards to women, when you optimize your population, the return on productivity, invention, and economic expansion is significant.  But that’s unlikely—at least in the US.  If recognizing reasonable access to healthcare in a world where our understanding and ways of healing are extremely complex (and highly industrialized) is something enough to cause uproars and claims of “socialism”, then recognizing how costly and inaccessible college education is for many, despite their need for it in order to be successful, is not going to fly either.  And that’s a shame.

Appreciating Failure in Education

So, my compromise—or rather what’s been toiling in my head a lot of late is failure.  My failures, students’ failures, our culture’s failures.   Kathryn Schulz’s take “On being wrong” makes me rethink education in many ways while BrenĂ© Brown’s "Listening to shame" is equally humbling.  But taken together is this idea that we miss some great opportunities to fail and learn.  So many of our greatest lessons are from failure and recognizing the things that we are ashamed of about ourselves.  We never get to have these conversations—because we’re too worried about being wrong and being ashamed.  But there’s such powerful learning right there.  That’s where this is leading me—recognizing that some students will need to fail and that we should give them the opportunity to fail…free of charge.

The income gap between people with advance education and those without is significant.  In recent years, a college degree equals an increase of nearly 70% in the big picture. Whether intuitively or factually, many people realize this and set off to college whether they can afford it or not.  And a lot do not succeed for a variety of reasons.  But failure results in not just lost time, poor grades, expulsion, etc, it results in significant financial lost that the student will have to pay back (if school loans were involved) or has lost.  That’s a serious hit when one considers the cost of the course, books, transportation/parking, time spent in and out of class, etc.  Even at a community college, the direct costs could run upwards of $600-800 and another $600-1000 in indirect costs for just one course.  That calculation is based upon the following:
  • The course is about $500
  • The course text is about $100
  • Transportation at least $1-5 per visit depending upon resources
  • 40 hours of class time that could be spent work at minimum wage $300, 
  • $600-900 for additional class work outside the classroom that the student could be earning money.
 That’s what a student needs to put in (well, multiplied by 35-38 courses), if the student is going to potentially get the return of an income 70% higher than a non-college graduate.  The financial burden of that hits lower income students disproportionately and unfairly, particularly if the student fails (and the challenges for poorer students to succeed entails many more obstacles as well).

Let me tell you about Jane.  Jane wasn’t ready for college.  But she had no way of really knowing that until she got into college.  She had not yet developed the intellectual skills to discuss the material at a level which proved competency nor did she have the communication skills that are reasonably expected at the college level.  But she did know she needed more for her life in terms of work; especially after being laid off.  Enter a unversity that encouraged her to enroll at their school (and though in this case, it was a for-profit school who has been under fire for its “recruitment” tactics, this happens in various ways at nonprofit schools as well).  But Jane couldn’t afford it—they showed her how to apply for loans and encouraged her to fulfill her dreams, get the education, and make a lot of money.  Money was tight, but with the loans, she could afford going to college.  So she did.  And she failed.  So now that Jane has failed, she’s not moving up in any economic sense and is left to now start paying for those school loans, limiting her options even further.

That seems wrong to me.  Yes, Jane wasn’t ready for college and someone might have been able to see that ahead of time, but there are many out there who just won’t know until they are there.  There are many who have to try college to know that they are not ready for it.  There are others who will never try college because of the prohibitive costs or that they are not intellectually ready for the challenge (only to find out that they are).  I don’t think we will get to a point where advance education is the right that we recognize secondary education to be, but I think we should recognize at least the opportunity to try (and even fail) at higher education without penalty is worth exploring. 

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