Which College or Whether College? Maybe the Feds Can Help, After All

When I enrolled in college back in the prehistoric days of 1966, the process was simple. I went to the high school guidance office, browsed some college catalogs, spoke with the guidance counselor about which school might be right for me, and sent off one application.

Once accepted, my parents drove me to campus to begin classes. It was the first time I ever laid eyes on the place.

A lot has changed, of course, and I have observed the current process from the vantage point of a parent whose three children all went to college, and later as a member of the faculty and staff of a liberal arts college, where my duties included assisting the admissions department.

College representatives attending fairs held in the local high schools, slick marketing brochures sent to students identified by the schools as potential enrollees, colorful presentations on the Internet, multiple campus visits during the final two years of high school—all of these are used by colleges, students, and parents as they play the collegiate acceptance dating game.

From an admissions department perspective, they are doing their best to market their schools to capable high school seniors. They stress the programs, the activities, and the living experiences that might appeal to the potential students. Although admissions officers will generally not speak ill of other colleges in their presentations and during interviews, they go out of their way to stress the positive aspects of their own school.

There is nothing wrong with this, as far as it goes.

But there seems to be something missing in the process, something that will eventually become evident to almost half of the students who engage in the collegiate search. That is a discussion not of which college to attend, but whether to attend college—now, or ever.

Clearly, college is not for everybody, and we know that a surprisingly large percentage of students who enroll in an undergraduate program will end up without a degree, sometimes costing themselves a small fortune in the process.

We can’t expect many high school guidance counselors to discourage college enrollment, as this is an important measure of a high school’s success. Similarly, a college admissions counselor cannot be expected to discourage the attendance of tuition paying students, particularly in a time of increased competition for high school graduates.

As a result, many students and parents are not armed with sufficient information to allow them to make the “whether” decision. To whom can they look for help?

Since the federal government has been meddling in higher education for years, maybe it can actually add some value here. After all, students without degrees but holding a lot of student loan debt are threatening to become a drag on the economy, so this should provide motivation for the government to try to prevent such unproductive outcomes.

My suggestion is to require that every entering college student who intends to use any federal student aid money be first required to sign a “Federal Higher Education Disclosure Statement” prior to actually beginning classes and remitting their first tuition payment.

Disclosure statements are certainly nothing new, and we sign them all the time. We acknowledge the possible catastrophic consequences of even the most minor medical procedures.

Every credit card approval comes with a signed disclosure agreement that requires the cardholder to use arbitration, rather than the courts, to handle disputes.

Along with millions of others, every time I download the latest Apple operating software, I “agree” to the terms and conditions, usually without reading them. The list goes on and on.

Every college or university differs in certain respects, so any federal disclosure statement would not be exactly applicable to each school. However, in true rigid bureaucratic fashion, government would provide one standardized form for use by all. The disclosures that the student would be required to read and understand are really quite straightforward. They would give the student and parents some vital food for thought before committing time and money for a college education:

1. I acknowledge that I am committing to pay $____,000 for the first year’s tuition, room, board, and fees for entry into the bachelor’s degree program.

2. I acknowledge that this amount is fixed for the first year only, and that the college may increase the payments in future years, without any specific limit. Should I later decide to transfer to another school, I understand that all credits may not be transferrable.

3. I understand that a portion of these college costs may be paid in the form of student loans from the federal government to the college on my behalf, that these loans are my responsibility, and that they cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

4. I understand that, even if I fail to earn a degree, all prior tuition payments are non-refundable, and that my student loans must be repaid in full by me.

5. I further acknowledge that 42 percent of all students who enter college fail to earn a degree, even within six years of enrollment.

6. I understand that a college degree does not guarantee me a job after graduation, much less a minimum income level.

7. I understand that 43 percent of all student loan borrowers are currently not making loan repayments, and a third of these are now declared to be in default.

8. I understand that the college career placement office will assist me with such things as resume writing, holding job fairs on campus, and providing alumni contacts at various organizations, but the responsibility of obtaining a job rests on my shoulders alone.

9. I understand that the majority of courses taught nationwide are not taught by tenured professors, but instead by short-term contingent faculty and graduate students.

10.  I finally acknowledge that many recent college graduates have been unable to find employment relating to their field of study, and often are working in positions that have traditionally not required a college degree

I hereby acknowledge that I have read and understood the information presented in this Higher Education Disclosure Statement, and that I fully accept the risks associated with making this significant investment.