By Edward B. Fiske. Edward B. Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, is the of "The Fiske Guide to Colleges" , and "Smart Schools, Smart Kids" .
The Christian Science Monitor
AMERICANS take justifiable pride in a system of higher education that not only is a magnet for some of the brightest students and scholars from around the world, but is also the world's most diverse, flexible, and forgiving.
We boast that, unlike most European countries, we do not systematically sort young people into irreversible vocational or academic "tracks" at an early age. Even our latest of bloomers will find some institution ready and willing to give them a second - or third, or fourth - chance.
The problem is that virtually all of the strengths of the American system of higher education are focused on moving students toward bachelor's degrees. We send a much higher proportion of young people on to colleges and universities than countries like France and Germany, but these nations do a far better job of taking seriously the educational needs of all high school graduates.
The narrow focus of our post-secondary education system was driven home to me during a recent visit to Detroit where, as in most core urban areas, few young people have the luxury of entertaining the academic aspirations that define the American mainstream - a fact made tragically apparent by the recent riots in Los Angeles.
For these students - mostly poor, members of minority groups, many from non-English-speaking homes - the thought that they might qualify for and attend a four-year university, even one as nearby as the University of Detroit or Wayne State University, is fanciful. Their options for training beyond high school are, for all practical purposes, two-year public colleges like Wayne County Community College, private nonprofit institutions such as Jordan College that have made urban education a special mission, and various proprietary career colleges.
On paper, the capacity to serve such students is there. Mary Jane Bond, the director of student services at Wayne County Community College, noted that her institution served as many as 22,000 students in the late 1970s. "Now we're down to 12,500," she said. "The number of students out there who would benefit from our programs is incredible, but the capacity is not being used."
Why is the capacity not being used? The answer is complex and starts with the way we provide tuition assistance to low-income Americans.
Post-secondary education is a costly proposition for any student, and recent cuts in subsidies by state and local governments are pushing an even greater share of the cost onto the student. For inner-city young people, the problem is compounded by cutbacks in federal tuition assistance programs and - equally important - a dramatic shift from reliance on grants to heavy use of loans in the typical student-aid package.
Congress expanded the guaranteed student loan program in the late '70s as a means of providing relief to middle-class families who were presumably accustomed to managing consumer credit. The assumption at the time was that poor students would continue to receive financial aid primarily in the form of grants.
Over the last decade and a half, however, the nicety of that distinction got lost, and Congress, cheered on by the Reagan administration, began demanding that low-income students take a higher and higher proportion of their tuition assistance in the form of loans. "In the late 1970s, 90 percent of aid to our students went to grants and only 10 percent to loans," said Rafael Cortada, president of Wayne County Community College. "Now, 85 percent of the funds come in the form of loans and 15 percent in grants."
This was, of course, an invitation to disaster. Numerous studies show that low-income students are reluctant to take on debt to invest in education. "The high-risk student who is serious about getting an education should not have to borrow," said Lexie Coxon, the president of Jordan College, a nonprofit school founded by Methodists, three-quarters of whose students, most of them single mothers, live below the poverty line. …