Back in the 1980s, I worked at a psychiatric hospital in Rochester, N.Y. during the height of the deinstitutionalization movement. People had long concluded that the places originally known as “asylums” had mutated into “snake pits.” Most observers were therefore overjoyed when it seemed that psychotropic drugs could allow patients to function normally outside their gates.
Hence a move began to discharge all but the most severe cases into the community. The difficulty was that there were few good places to send these people. Many of their families were as damaged as they, and because group homes were in short supply the only available alternatives were often rooming houses run by mercenary tyrants.
As a consequence, the psychologists and social workers assigned to facilitate these transitions acted slowly and cautiously. But this was not good enough for the politicians in Albany. They demanded that the hospitals be emptied — and emptied immediately. If not, heads would roll.
And so the patients were discharged under circumstances that those who put these plans together were confident would not work. Indeed, within weeks the Rochester papers reported an upsurge in indigents living under the bridges over the Genesee River.
This, at least in upstate New York, was the primary source of the “homelessness” crisis. More than anything else this fiasco was caused by overeager politicians determined to make naïve voters happy.
Fast forward to contemporary Georgia. Now people are complaining that our colleges and universities are failing in their mission to educate that state’s young people. Not only do these schools cost too much, but too many of their students take more than the traditional four years to graduate.
Enter the state legislature. Its sincerely concerned members came up with an elegant solution. They decided to change the formula whereby they funded state schools. Institutions of higher education would now be allocated dollars on the basis of their graduation rates as opposed to their enrollment numbers.
In schools like Kennesaw State University, where many students are low on funds and/or high in family obligations, they must take one or more jobs to make ends meet. This necessitates that they not carry full college loads, and consequently that they take longer to complete their studies.
Nevertheless KSU, like Rochester’s psychiatric hospital, must find ways to hurry these folks along lest it be underfunded. And so its faculty and administrators are forced to devise plans that give the appearance of improving quality while shrinking the time needed to obtain a degree.
The fact is there is only one way to achieve this — and that is by lowering academic standards. Sadly, the credentials students ultimately receive are thereby cheapened, with the consequence that they will have greater difficulty getting good jobs. But hey, the numbers will look first-rate.
Isn’t this ironic? In an effort to reform higher education, alleged legislative correctives are guaranteed to harm the very students who are most in need of a solid college education. The fact is that KSU is not the University of Georgia. Many of its students simply require more time than traditional college students.
But no, in the name of helping these learners, their opportunity for social mobility is to be torn from their grasp. A “one size fits all” mentality instead dictates that they be pushed out into the cold cruel world before they are ready. Where is the sense in this?
Isn’t it time that politicians who don’t understand higher education meddle a bit less? Do we really want an academic version of the deinstitutionalization scandal? Perhaps those responsible for this dilemma should take a second look at the absurdity they have wrought.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.