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 gran ts."
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.
Moreover, the increased reliance on loans created the well-publicized problem of high default rates. Slick Willie Sutton, the notorious bank robber, once explained that he robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Is it any surprise that people who don't have money are not likely to pay off debts as efficiently as those who do?
Congress responded by cracking down on schools - public and private alike - whose students had high default rates, withdrawing their eligibility to participate in federal loan programs.
The crackdown turned into a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that unscrupulous institutions whose raison d'etre was to take advantage of a loan program that was ill-advised from the beginning were driven out of business. The downside was that many institutions that had been seriously interested in serving low-income students could not maintain full-scale programs or had to leave the inner-cities entirely.
Another set of obstacles to post-secondary education for urban young people relates to motivation and self-confidence. Many, if not most, low-income students are relegated to second-rate primary and secondary schools, where academic life consists of one failure after another. Such students are justifiably reluctant to risk additional humiliation by going on for yet another diploma.
Motivation to take such risks can come from any direction. During a recent discussion with students at the Detroit Business Institute, a 142-year-old proprietary school, several students said that they had enrolled because they had become fed up with the indignity of being on welfare. Several others expressed frustration with trying to survive on unskilled jobs.
Then there was the young man who explained, "I have a son, and one day he looked at me and said, 'Dad, when I grow up I want to be like you.' I looked in the mirror and decided that I had to do something with my life." His goal is to obtain a bachelor's degree in accounting, and enrolling in a trade school was his way of trying to navigate a safe harbor before setting out into the big sea.
Jeremy Berg, vice president for students services at Jordan College, explained that advertising and other promotional activities showing the practical benefits of additional schooling are important in raising the aspirations of low-income students. "Ninety-five percent of our students were not shopping for college," he said. "Our mission statement says that we seek 'to attract' students. We target people who never identified themselves as a student."
Once students take the risk of enrolling they need constant support and encouragement. Small classes, close attention from teachers, day-care facilities, and other services that are nonexistent in "mainline" colleges and universities make the difference between persevering and dropping out.
"We monitor attendance more closely than they do in high schools," said Mr. Berg. "If a student fails to show up for class, we're right on the telephone to find out why."
At the Michigan Career Institute, a private career school offering courses in automotive mechanics, a counselor devotes the first morning of every course to a discussion of all the excuses, legitimate and otherwise, that can be made for cutting class. He tells the students to line up someone to serve as a substitute if the baby sitter calls in sick or a friend to drive them if the car breaks down. As at Jordan, every late student is tracked down.
Increasing access to post-secondary education is an urgent national interest. In a global economy where national wealth is measured not by what comes out of the ground but by what comes out of citizens' heads, we can no longer afford to condemn large segments of our population to economic irrelevance.
Studies of historically black colleges and other institutions serving under-represented groups show that, given the right kind of financial and other support, low-income students can succeed in post-secondary education. Doing so will require jettisoning public policies that present barriers to educational opportunities and designing new ones that take full advantage of the diversity of American higher education.