One Way to Improve the Higher Education Act

The Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization this year, so this is an especially good time to talk about improvements to it. (We ought to consider repealing it instead, but almost nobody in Congress would support that.) One idea, recently advanced here by Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is to stop allowing students to use Pell Grants for remedial coursework.

“A huge proportion of this $40 billion annual federal investment,” Petrilli writes, “is flowing to people who simply aren’t prepared to do college-level work. And this is perverting higher education’s mission, suppressing completion rates and warping the country’s K-12 system.”

Absolutely right. Higher education should not be devoted to attempts (often unavailing) to catch up on basic material that was not learned during students’ K-12 years (and perhaps not even taught) and the use of federal money to draw them into college lowers the incentives for students to do well during their primary and secondary education.

Petrilli is not the first person to connect easy, federally-subsidized college admission with the decline of K-12 standards. In his 2010 book The Lowering of Higher Education in America, Jackson Toby (professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers), observed that effect.  He argues, “Since marginal students know while they are still in high school that they will be able to be admitted and get financial aid at some college, they lack an incentive to try to learn as much as they could in high school….”

Government subsidies and market interventions always have unintended consequences and federal student aid is no exception. Transforming higher education from something that young people had to strive for into a near entitlement has had a lot of adverse unintended consequences and the undermining of basic learning is foremost among them.

What if we could reform Pell grants the way Petrilli and Toby suggest?

Petrilli admits that one possibility is that colleges and universities would disguise remedial courses by making them appear to be more than mere repetition of high school material and thus giving credit for them.  I have no doubt but that some institutions would try that. The steady stream of students and funds they have become dependent upon makes it tempting for them to play the system.

But what about the more hopeful prospect – that this change would compel high schools to raise their standards and stop passing students who haven’t really learned anything? Even if it had that effect only in small measure, it would nevertheless be worthwhile because the miserable educational results for many students (and not just inner-city, minority kids) is one of our worst national problems. Young people who are told that they’re doing fine when in fact they are not learning the fundamentals of reading and writing and mathematics are put on a bad course. At best, some of them squeak through college after taking remedial classes; at worst, many fail to develop the personal discipline and rudimentary skills needed to hold any but the most menial of jobs.

I think that the federal government should abandon the financing of higher education entirely, but putting a limit on Pell grants so the money cannot be used for remedial courses is a good step in the right direction.  

George Leef

George Leef is Director of Research for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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