Daniel Sutter: Selling hope to students

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America’s first sports-only university opened last fall, and has already closed. The case illustrates a challenging dilemma for higher education generally.

Forest Trail Sports University, as reported by ESPN, allowed student-athletes to focus on training, practicing, and playing. Online classes were provided under subcontract from a separate university. Forest Trail was for-profit and may have been a total scam, although North Carolina authorities reported no criminal actions by the operators.

I do not wish to dwell on the sad details here. Instead I want to focus on what Forest Trail was ultimately selling, namely hope. Forest Trail’s promotional pitch proved enticing to both students and parents – the opportunity to continue playing sports and possibly secure a scholarship at an NCAA institution. Junior colleges offer a similar hope. For some Forest Trail student-athletes, an athletic scholarship was their only path to college.

Many universities similarly market hope to students. The hope sold to traditional students is economic, not athletic: college graduates earn on average 60 to 70 percent more than high school grads. Many Americans see a college degree as the only route to the middle class.

Consider then the high school graduates who lack the test scores and college prep courses for admission to a traditional university, or those who flunk or drop out of college. These students resemble the athletes who just failed to land a scholarship. Should marginal students attend college? Serving marginally qualified students contributes significantly to the cost of higher education (through remedial classes) and lowers outcome measures (like six-year graduation rates).

Here are two simple rules, which could significantly reduce higher education spending. First, allow students one attempt on the ACT or SAT exam, and permanently bar any student failing to achieve a reasonable minimum score from attending college. Second, never let any student who fails out enroll again. The U.S. Department of Education could tie universities’ eligibility for Federal student aid to adherence to these two rules.

I doubt that these rules would prove popular (and I am not actually advocating them). Some students deemed ineligible could succeed in college, and there are some good reasons to allow students multiple attempts. For example, sixteen year-olds may not take the ACT seriously. College students may not understand how job prospects later will depend on earning a degree. And graduates of poor public schools are often unprepared for college.

Americans believe that our nation is a land of opportunity. The chance to overcome disadvantages through hard work is an integral component of opportunity. Yet allowing opportunity creates potential problems. For example, marginal students may be better served by focusing on a job or vocational training instead of using savings or incurring debt to pursue a college degree they likely will never earn.

Market competition normally works very well, but seems too quick to sell false hope, as in the Forest Trail case. However colleges as a group set lines for admission, some students will always just fail to qualify. They provide natural customers for a new program selling opportunity.

Competing for marginal students can compromise the quality of higher education. Watering down content and inflating grades can help students pass courses they would otherwise fail. Selling essentially fake degrees makes employers incur costs distinguishing fake and legitimate degrees. If bogus degrees cannot be identified, the value of legitimate degrees will fall.

The Federal government provides significant funding for college since passage of the Higher Education Act in 1965. Access to Federal student aid is now effectively part of educational opportunity. This only deepens the mess. Unscrupulous colleges like the now-defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges can sell students bogus degrees paid for largely by Federal taxpayers.

Economics can often suggest ways to improve programs, but other times we can merely identify unpleasant tradeoffs. Higher education policy involves tradeoffs between opportunity, cost, and efficiency. The false hope sold by America’s first sports university may be disgraceful, but rules preventing colleges from selling hope may be no more palatable.

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Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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