Going to the Extreme With College Dropouts

Updated Oct 20, 2014

Richard Vedder, who teaches at Ohio University and is an adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, thinks adjuncts are the dalit—the modern Indian term for “untouchables.”

“Untouchables,” you’ll recall, were those in the Indian caste system so low they’re the ones Vedder says perform tasks “such as removing human excrement from latrines by their bare hands.”

Adjuncts are the closest thing to latrine workers in academic America, Vedder says.

But among the students, he says dropouts are the real “untouchables,” and a more serious problem for the country.

Of course, having been an adjunct (in journalism and communications), a dropout (technically on leave from Harvard, but returned in a year to graduate), and a latrine worker (Harvard Dorm Crew!), I was piqued by Vedder’s setup.

Vedder cites Census data that shows nearly 35 million drop-outs age 25 and over. And that many drop out after the second year, incurring large amounts of debt. Without a degree, they have much lower earning potential than a graduate.

Let’s just accept that at face value for now. So what does Vedder do?

Most reasonable people would try to help those who dropout. Give aid to the low-income student who may not be able to afford to stay in college. Or give them more classroom support.

That’s what I’d do.

But Vedder would do none of that.

This is Vedder’s affirmative action. Make it harder to stay in school. Let them drop out as early as possible. And in admissions, just make it harder for less qualified students to be admitted in the first place. Vedder wants to establish a “probability of success” index based on grades, quality of school attended, high school rank and test scores.

High score wins. Are you ready for an absolute meritocracy?

Vedder would route those who don’t pass the test into community colleges and vocational schools. He says it will reduce the costs of educating those who can’t perform. And it would cut down student debt and loan defaults.

It would also solve the current surplus of degree holders. It would cut the glut and reduce the competition among graduates for what few jobs exist, Vedder says.

Thankfully, Vedder acknowledges he’d be accused of being “anti-access, anti-minority.”

So we know he’s not a total crackpot.

But Vedder argues it would be “a proposal for successful access and align student expectations more closely with potential outcomes. It would reduce enrollments and revenues for the colleges, forcing some needed creative destruction upon higher education.”

Vedder’s piece ran in Forbes last week.

At least he’s right in one area. His plan is “anti-access” and “anti-minority.” And in any other time would never be taken seriously.

But the way we’re losing ground on civil rights in this country (note SCOTUS ruling on Texas voter ID law last week) you can expect erosion and backsliding in just about every area imaginable.

In a society where inequality is tolerated even just a little bit, you need to be aware of ideas like Vedder’s.

In this current climate, such ideas have a chance to move forward, much further than you think.

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog) Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media ; twitter@emilamok