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Thursday, May 24, 2007

College for Everyone! And Ponies!

You may have heard about the kerfuffle over John Edwards's speech at UC Davis. Edwards spoke out against poverty, and was paid $55,000 to do it. (Note: This was before he declared his candidacy for President.) The SF Chronicle report linked above said that Edwards was proposing to remove "every financial barrier" for American kids who wanted to go to college.

I was curious about that, and wanted to learn more. Unfortunately, googling around for "John Edwards" and "every financial barrier" only led to pages and pages of links to the fee story. I finally found his proposed policy at his own site. (I'd gone there first thing, but couldn't find a detailed description of the plan.)

It's not very detailed, as you might expect. The only solid proposal is one that would pay for the first year of college for kids who agreed to work ten hours a week. It's kind of funny, because according to this summary (scroll down to "Expand College Opportunity" under "STRENGTHENING EDUCATION"), Research has shown that the first year of college is the most difficult one... In which case maybe they ought to be studying rather than working. Also, that only takes care of the first year of college; a kid who starts college with nothing is not going to be appreciably richer by the end of the year. Apparently Edwards is only concerned that people start college, not whether they finish.

It turns out that one country (at least) has already removed "every financial barrier" to getting into college: France.

The Sorbonne has no cafeteria, no student newspaper, no varsity sports, no desk-side electric plugs for laptops. France's most renowned university also costs next-to-nothing to attend, and admission is open to every high school graduate.

President Nicolas Sarkozy says this picture is emblematic of much that is wrong with France...

Naturally the coddled French student population is up in arms about it. Read the article if you're interested in that. I was more interested in this:

[Sorbonne president Jean-Robert] Pitte says the French system just produces dropouts. Forty-five percent of Sorbonne students do not complete their first year, and 55 percent do not earn a degrees. Without entrance standards, there is a "selection-by-failure" that squanders resources and professors' time on students who "have no real chance of success," he said.

Now that puzzled me, because if that many students are dropping out, surely there's pressure for Someone to Do Something. Surely, at least, their parents are complaining that they're spending all this money for their kids to go to school, and...oh, that's right: they're not paying anything. And since they're not paying anything, since there's no pressure on the university, it doesn't need to change.

This is not a Bad Thing. The Sorbonne is a very respected university, and it can't maintain its quality and still graduate every kid in France. Not everyone is Sorbonne material, and that's just it. So you either have entry standards, or you have mass failures, or you degrade the reputation of the school.

Of course, entry standards are different things from financial barriers, but the point still stands: not everyone is cut out to go to college -- at least, not while a college degree means anything -- and there's no use pretending otherwise.

A colleague of mine who attended the University of Rome told me that much the same situation obtained there: admissions were open to everyone, and as a consequence the place was infested with slackers (and, he said, professional protesters) who would never graduate.

Whatever happened to learning from our European betters? Guess that's all off now that Sarko's in.