Forcing college applications is a waste

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As a college student, I take special interest in the ideas public representatives (at all levels of government) put forward as economic solutions when they affect higher education. Some of these proposals, though well intentioned, are not well thought out.

Take the latest bill from Washington, D.C., Council Chairman Kwame Brown for example.

According to Fox News, Brown introduced a bill Wednesday, Jan. 4, that would require all D.C. students to apply to at least one college or trade school before graduation, whether they plan on attending or not.

Brown is quoted as saying: “I believe that every child should have the opportunity, even if they don’t go, to at least apply to a college.”

It’s easy to see where Brown’s personal belief comes from. After all, a college degree—though not a guarantee of employment—remains a minimum requirement for many careers. When the number of jobs decreases, the most qualified and credentialed applicants are the most competitive. Brown wants more people to be able to qualify and compete for these jobs.

So then why are some high school students not going on to attend college? Brown says some students in his area are not attending because they “don’t know how to navigate the enrollment process.”

In other words, ignorance of the college admission and financial aid bureaucracy is a significant impediment to people attending college. And rather than campaigning to make the application process easier for people to understand, Brown proposes to give high school students more education – in filling out government documents.

There are many reasons I can think for people not applying to go to college: inability to pay tuition and fees, family responsibilities and work opportunities for example. Lacking information that is publicly available is not the first issue that came to my mind. And I’d always considered applying to college to be within the realm of one’s personal, adult responsibility and not in the way of public duty or matter of law.

Still, Brown’s bill proposes four important mandates to address this “problem”:

First, teachers must know how to apply for college admission and financial aid. (This means schools must provide “mandatory workshop[s]” to educate teachers and students on the application processes.) Second, all students must apply to at least one college or trade school before high school graduation. Third, all students must take either the SAT or ACT standardized test. Fourth, the schools must pay for the implementation of these standards.

In the end, students still have the same opportunity to apply as they would have before. It’s not the opportunity that changes according to this plan; rather it forces people to act a certain way on the opportunity Brown favors.

Brown’s bill—while striving to remedy one problem—is certain to create more problems for D.C. schools if signed into law, especially when it comes down to paying for the mandates. The cost of providing workshops, processing applications and administering test represents an unfunded mandate, a new financial burden to the school district.

Brown offers no ideas for how to pay for all this, only the less-than-reassuring and entirely inadequate suggestion that he “would work with the D.C. school system to make sure students have the ‘resources’ to apply.”

The waste of resources Brown is suggesting should be of concern to the D.C. community. Countless applications will be filled out, filed, and processed … and then never followed up on. College admissions offices would have to sort through thousands of more applications from people who have no intention on attending their schools. D.C. parents and students should consider the delay this would cause to those who actually intend to attend a college or trade school.

People who want to go to college will take it upon themselves to learn about the process. All the information on how to apply is publicly available—all a person requires is the motivation to find and use it. Schools should not be wasting their time and money to make people apply for something for which they have expressed no interest.

While the policy Brown suggests is still far from standard, some public schools and public charter schools have adopted them. If the idea gains popularity there could be a day when a similar policy discussion makes its way to our school districts. We should keep the consequences of such a policy in mind and not excuse the shortcomings of a plan based on the good intentions of those who argue for them.