The Best Way to Fix Student Aid: Make the Colleges Earn It

Colleges have come to expect financial assistance from the government, no matter what. That's wrong. Our schools need to prove they deserve aid from taxpayers.

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This week's Working it Out Question was: What one change would you make in our system of college financial aid?

I was expecting most of your comments to call for more aid, but, disproportionately, you called for less aid. You argued that because tuition is heavily subsidized, students don't have enough skin in the game. As a result, too many students are cavalier in choosing a college and a major. And colleges can raise tuition with impunity knowing it'll be largely paid for by that taxpayer-funded aid.

These are all valid arguments. But I believe more potent and fair would be for government to dispense taxpayer-funded financial aid only to colleges that demonstrate growth in student learning and employability. Currently, too few colleges do. As I said in the tee-off piece:

Rigorous studies have revealed that college students learn shockingly little. For example, in Academically Adrift, it was reported that 36% of graduating seniors nationwide grew not at all in problem solving, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning since entering college as freshmen!

And our sending the highest percentage of students to college in history (now 70%) has created an oversupply of college graduates. That helps explains why, according to a Pew fiscal analysis, 35 percent of the unemployed with college or graduate degrees have been unemployed for more than a year, the same rate as unemployed high school dropouts!

The government would never allow a drug to be sold, let alone subsidize it, without the drug's manufacturer demonstrating its efficacy. Colleges receive enormous sums of taxpayer dollars. They should be required to demonstrate freshman-to-senior growth in learning and employability that even minimally justifies the four to eight years, enormous cost, and risk of not graduating. Nationwide, fewer than 40% of first-time freshmen graduate within four years. Fewer than two-thirds graduate even if given six years!

Putting a little flesh on that skeleton, I believe that, to receive taxpayer-funded financial-aid dollars, all colleges be required to demonstrate:

1) At least modest average-student growth in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and problem solving as measured by a standardized exam selected by a national blue-ribbon panel of psychometricians, higher educators, and employers. Well-validated such instruments exist, for example, the Collegiate Learning Assessment.

    One of education's clearest phenomena is that the pool of low-achieving students often make less growth than the pool of high-achieving students, even in programs in which much more money per child is spent on the low achievers. It is unrealistic to expect a college that has, for example, a student body that on average enters reading on a 9th grade level to make as much growth as a student body entering reading on a 12th grade level.  Therefore, the amount of growth required would depend on the student body's average high school record. For example:

    <3.0*/50 percentile on SAT -- 2 years growth.
    3.25/65 percentile SAT -- 2.5 years growth
    3.50/80 percentile SAT -- 3 years growth
    3.75/ 90 percentile SAT -- 4 years growth.

    2) At least modestly improved employability of the institution's graduates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has long categorized jobs in terms of how much education is typically required. Colleges should show that they are capable of delivering a certain standard of outcomes for students with a certain level of achievement. For example:

    <3.0*/50 percentile on SAT: 25% of graduates are employed in a position requiring more than a high school diploma within one year of graduation, or are in graduate school

    3.25/65 percentile SAT: 40% of graduates are employed requiring more than a high school diploma within one year of graduation, or are in graduate school

    3.50/80 percentile SAT: 55% of graduates are employed requiring more than a high school diploma within one year of graduation or are in graduate school

    3.75/ 90 percentile SAT: 70% of graduates are employed in a position requiring more than a high school diploma within one year of graduation, or are in graduate school.

      Most experts (and President Obama) contend that a better-educated citizenry is key to a better America. To date, we have given higher education a free pass and mammoth access to our tax dollars while requiring less accountability than we do for a tire. That must screech to a halt.


      Presented by

      Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of innovation. His columns have appeared in the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, and his sixth book, just published, is How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School. More

      Marty Nemko was called "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. His columns and features have appeared in U.S. News, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. The archive of his hundreds of published articles, his blog, plus chapters from his book, Cool Careers for Dummies, plus mp3s of his KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco) show are on

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