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Jackson Toby on What’s Wrong With Financial Aid

Jackson Toby’s recent book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should be Based on Student Promise (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Press, 2010), funded partially by the Olin Foundation, is clearly a conservative critique of the current state of higher education in America. Toby makes a compelling case that attending college is all but a universal expectation for most American high school graduates, and that this cultural attitude is a recipe for disaster.

He claims, “Prepared or not, youngsters hear that they ought to go to college for their own good, and, persuaded by adults, a majority of high school graduates apply, regardless of their enthusiasm for further education.” Then, “having convinced high school graduates to enroll in college, we make it easy for almost any high school graduate to get accepted at some college and pleasant for them when they get there.”

The first half of Toby’s book focuses on two central questions, neither of which can be considered political—conservative or liberal—at all: 1) Why are students who lack even a mild interest in education nevertheless eager to go to college? And 2) Why do colleges admit them? Toby elaborates by asking, “Are the consequences of virtually universal access to higher education a good investment in American society?” Does everyone have to have a college education in order to maintain a knowledge based economy?”

Toby asserts that federal assistance for access to higher education is available to virtually every high school graduate in the form of PELL grants, tuition tax credits, and, most prominently of course, student loans. 70 percent of all financial aid is distributed in the form of loans. The loans, however, cannot be defaulted—even if the borrower performs poorly, drops out, or is unable to find work after graduating. When any of those things happen, the colleges have already gotten their money, and and either the unsuccessful student or us taxpayers are left footing the bill. Even in a best case scenario, a gainfully employed college graduate still carries an average of $24,000 in student debt, which may actually makes him or her a drain on the economy—unable to start a family, buy a house, a new car, unable, that is, to be a full-fledged consumer.

So access to higher education is in effect an entitlement, but one built on a precarious and unsustainable foundation. Toby goes on to argue, moreover, that it’s simply a bad idea to offer access to college to so many millions of high school graduates regardless of their academic performance, work ethic, or intellectual capability.

There are definitely traces of Allan Bloom’s (Closing of the American Mind) disdain for the typical undergraduate in this book—Toby devotes an entire chapter to “Goofing Off in College.” There is also a clear sense in the book that the country’s student population should be subject to a tracking system, with the vast majority steered toward what Toby calls “good, blue collar jobs.” However vague all this sounds, Toby does back up his claims, with an extensive survey of how undergrads spend their time (it isn’t flattering), and a list of high-skilled, high-paying blue collar jobs, asking, for example, if it’s easier to find a good carpenter, electrician, or plumber as it is to find a good doctor, lawyer, or accountant. So much for Toby’s shrewd and distinctly not anti-academic diagnosis. Next up, his solution.

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