College for Those Who Can't Learn

It is not easy being a connoisseur of educational foibles -- just as one is recovering from the latest foolishness, along comes something new, and it's back to the anti-depressants. The latest installment of Educators Gone Wild is the push to enroll the "intellectually disabled" in college. We are not talking about attracting eccentrics; these recruits are youngsters with Down Syndrome, autism, and other disabilities that seriously impede learning. This is college for those stymied by reading and writing.

Eight years ago, a mere four campus programs existed for the intellectually disabled; by 2009, this has soared to 250 in some three dozen states (see here). Predictably, the impetus for this good-heartedness is federal money, and more is forthcoming -- Congress recently appropriated $10.56 million to develop 27 model projects to uncover successful approaches to getting these youngsters into college. Private foundations have also kicked in (federal Pell Grant loans also permit the mentally disabled to pay tuition and thereby acquire debt).

And why should Washington push access at a time when higher education funding in general is hurting? Political lobbying, notably pressures from parents of disabled children, has seen one triumph after another, and access to college is the next agenda item (see here for these groups). This is the "logical" progression of the mainstreaming movement whereby inserting the disabled into regular settings becomes a matter of right regardless of what is accomplished (see here for the legal push).

What might these mentally impaired students achieve in college? Even program advocates speak of skills once taught in vocational schools, e.g., library assistant or data entry clerk. So why should college shoulder this task when these skills can be cheaply taught in vocational schools? The justification, at least according to champions of this initiative, is to provide a "college experience." In practice, this means going through the motions of higher education, e.g., attending classes, living in a dorm, but not actually graduating. "Higher education" now also entails mastering "life skills," e.g., properly using a credit card, taking a bus, or navigating a job interview. Other justifications include learning to interact with the non-disabled and developing a sense of independence. None of this is even vaguely academic, and according to the U.S. Department of Education, as of 2010, not a single student enrolled in a program for the intellectually disabled has even received a degree from a two-year college, let alone a four-year institution.   

University outsiders might barely grasp the cost of this idealism. Like a combat soldier, each intellectually disabled student requires a small army of "college experience" facilitators. These include academic tutors (perhaps one per subject), counselors who specialize in learning disabilities, and personal aides to ensure that they arrive at classes and elsewhere. Further add the freshly hired campus and Washington bureaucrats to concoct the necessary regulations, monitor compliance, and handle financial disbursements. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, "it takes a village" to support a single intellectually disabled student.

The monetary drain also includes possible litigation. Consider the case of Micah Fialka-Feldman, a twenty-five-year-old student at Oakland University (OU) in Rochester, MI (see here). Micah's disability prevents him from knowing how to read and write. Nevertheless, he was formally enrolled in Oakland University and paid full tuition so as to acquire job-related social skills. For two years, Micah and his lawyers battled OU to live a university dormitory, a request denied since only degree program students were eligible for dormitory residence. Finally, a federal judge ruled that federal law trumps college rules and that Micah should be permitted to enjoy the full college experience that now includes dorm life. (OU also paid Micah's $102,000 legal fees.)

Making any environment litigation-proof is expensive, and the legal Sword of Damocles is inescapable. What if a functionally illiterate student is injured when failing to heed written signs? Must the university now convert all warning signs to pictographs or recorded messages triggered by motion sensors? Can schools protect such students from the rampant sexuality or binge-drinking permeating today's campuses? With federal funding comes paperwork, and woe to any school that screws up the paperwork. For example, Detroit, a city battling to impart rudimentary schooling, was docked $5 million by the state for incomplete record-keeping in its high school program for the disabled. Among other sins, the city failed to provide lists of qualified instructors, therapists, and social workers for these youngsters (see here).

The non-intellectually disabled college student also pays a price via higher tuition and fewer class openings, while funds for academic improvements may be cannibalized to support low-level vocational skill instruction. Meanwhile, college teachers are being encouraged to replace the traditional lecture format with group projects so the now-socially integrated disabled can enhance their life experiences.

Recruiting the mentally disabled is only a small part of a burgeoning infatuation with the impaired. For cash-strapped colleges, there's gold in them thar hills. Whole curricula will inevitably develop in which "Disabilities Studies" mimic ethnic studies. Hofstra University, despite cutting traditional programs elsewhere, now offers a Disabilities Studies Department (see here). Again, this is not cost-free generosity. When I taught at the University of Illinois, Urbana, I regularly had seriously physically disabled students in my class taking the course for credit. I was required to send my written lectures to their tutoring center and allow these students to take exams outside my supervision. Needless to say, no regular student enjoyed this extra help or freedom from instructor oversight, but it was futile to object. What if my lecture notes failed to cover an exam item, or information was conveyed by my responding to a student question? Might each disabled student have a government-funded note-taker (or recorder and transcriber) to accompany him or her to class? I had one severely disabled, chronically late young man who immediately asked a barrage of foolish questions upon arrival and then promptly slept through the remainder of the class period.

These multiplying programs sadly illustrate how "compassion" for the less fortunate can evolve into a powerful lobby and run unchecked since nobody dares oppose the glittering nonsense. In the past, such foolishness was met with "we just can't afford it," and that ended it. Today, by contrast, we increasingly resemble AIDS victims -- a people bereft of an immune system that can destroy toxins before they become deadly.

Details aside, pushing the disabled into college is just another example of wasting millions to achieve non-educational objectives. Providing the "college experience" to those baffled by college is a close cousin to awarding diplomas to semi-literates, defining all students as "gifted" though in different ways, or creating empty-calorie group identity majors. Happily, American higher education still remains world-class, though this may not last, as today's college administrators grow ever more appreciative of strugglers. After all, attracting and educating top students is hard work; by contrast, intellectually weak students are everywhere, and if Uncle Sam foots the bill, keeping the college in business is a snap. Even the mentally disabled can figure that one out.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad