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Higher Education: Not as Simple as 2 + 2

In addition to health care reform, the legislation President Obama signed into law last week included provisions meant to increase access to various forms of post-secondary education.  The new law doubles funding to the federal Pell Grant program, raising the individual limit, and increases funding to community colleges: moves which, according to the Obama administration, will allow 5 million more people to earn college degrees or certificates over the next decade.

This is good news, but it could have gone much farther.  In the debate leading up to the passage of the bill, though, many sources were questioning the entire enterprise, asking, why put so much emphasis on college education? and, what if college just isn’t for everyone?  While some claim that we need even more college graduates to compete in an increasingly technical global economy, or that a college degree is increasingly necessary for an individual to achieve economic security, others argue that we exaggerate the importance of college and herd young people thoughtlessly toward it, resulting in unnecessary time and money spent or in ill-equipped and unmotivated students ending up there.   I think it’s healthy to examine our assumptions and goals relating to education, but there are problems implicit in all these positions, and each illustrates how dangerously narrow most framing of the question has become.

For example, a recent debate on the subject sponsored by the Miller Center for Public Affairs tried to parse the issue into simple binaries.  Are too many students admitted to college today, or not enough?  Is college education an economic necessity, or not?  At no point in the debate did the participants say, it’s both and neither! or, You’re asking the wrong questions!

In the Miller Center debate, which was broadcast on PBS, Professor Richard Vedder of Ohio University and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity opined that manual- or service-laborers increasingly hold baccalaureate degrees, a condition he believes to demonstrate emphatically that our country does not require ever more college graduates.  Fair enough if the question is simply broadly economic: the “market” requirements for pure numbers of graduates.  But the Miller Center’s myopic focus on economic needs in a discussion of the value of college education is, I would argue, bizarre.  Of course many jobs–even most jobs–don’t *require* a bachelor’s degree: liberal arts education was never conceived as vocational training, per se, and few BA programs train the student for a specific career.  Its value resides in the quality of mind it encourages, the power such intellectual capacity confers on the individual, and the need for such engaged citizens in a functioning democracy.  Assuming there are no negative effects of attaining a college education, why shouldn’t it be assuring that even ticket-takers and mail carriers possess a college degree?

Even aside from the non-(or non-directly) economic benefits of education, the focus on the job market generally also ignores what for many individuals is an economic imperative.  Sure, most of the fastest growing careers don’t require a bachelor’s degree (as Vedder points out), but what do they pay?  The question about individual economic necessity is less a question about education than one about jobs.  If white collar jobs are the only ones that offer reasonable security and a livable wage, then of course many students who wouldn’t otherwise choose to will rush to get into 4-year colleges.  Tightening entrance requirements might help prevent “credential inflation” or the watering-down of instruction, but it’s not going to solve the problem of how to support all the folks who end up on different paths.

In other discussions online, commenters have taken the suggestion of higher education’s importance with seeming offense: of course higher ed isn’t necessary for everyone; my dad never went to college and he was one of the happiest and most knowledgeable people I know.  But this formulation ignores the very same reality: gone are the days when one could make a viable living from most low-skilled or trade jobs.  Nor do many high schools today train students in critical thinking and evaluation, and the lived realities of today’s working life hardly lend themselves to extensive reading or self-education.  No one means to suggest that the lack of a college degree implies ignorance or stupidity, but for many it does mean never acquiring the skills to evaluate what they are told or negotiate for their own interests.  The “stigma” associated with forgoing college for blue-collar work is not just some popular prejudice, it’s a reaction to an economic and political reality, and it represents a reluctance to leave anyone powerless.

Unfortunately, despite its benefits and the high economic stakes, it also *can’t* be assumed that college has no negative effects.  For the ticket-taker or mail carrier who can’t afford his student loan payment, college does begin to look like a liability.  As the cost of college education swells every year, and median family incomes stagnate, loans are increasingly the only way for many students to make college a reality.  Even for those who succeed, the debt they shoulder can be oppressive once they enter the working world, often making socially valuable careers like teaching or nonprofit work impossible.  But for those students who were destined to fail from the outset, their time in college can seem downright exploitative.

Because I do happen to think that people are admitted to college who do not belong there, who cannot succeed.  For some, this may be a question of personal preference or simply aptitude.  Formal education does not inspire or engage every person, and some simply aren’t capable of rigorous critical thinking.  These people should be neither “stigmatized” nor handicapped economically, and there are many forms of training and preparation we could offer that would benefit them more than a liberal arts college.  But theirs is not a problem to be solved by correctly valuing “education” as a concept–first we have to fairly value productive LABOR, of all kinds.

But more often, in my experience as a teacher, the students who are bound to fail are so not because of smarts, but because of preparation, and this is where discussions of “aptitude” and easy access begin to look particularly sinister to me.  We are still light-years away from equality in schools, not to mention income, nutrition, health care, psychological support, and other contributing factors that can present barriers to educational success.  “Aptitude,” then, is never a simple issue.  A college freshman who can’t compose a grammatically complete sentence has almost no chance of succeeding, but she has been poorly served by her primary and high school education.  The college that accepts her anyway, without offering any remedial preparation or support (as mine does) is exploiting her for her tuition.  But, obviously, nor is it enough to reject her in the name of rigorous standards.  Only when we’ve corrected the underlying conditions can we talk about “aptitude”–or access and continuing support–with terms like “credential inflation.”

Then again, perhaps not even then.  Because finally, I find I believe that anyone can benefit, in some way, from a traditional, liberal arts college education.  When it’s no longer the only “safe” economic bet, plenty of students will choose other routes.  But for those who don’t choose another path, if they can be helped to succeed, (and if they won’t be yoked with debt as a result,) why would we not want that?  Economic productivity is not the only measure of value, and anyway,  a bachelor’s degree isn’t a “credential” to “inflate”– it’s an irreplaceable experience that’s both empowering and engaging.  Why shouldn’t that be available, free, to anyone who would try?

Delia Christina.  “I Went to Grad School and All I Got Was This Lousy Nonprofit Job.”  <http://bitchphd.blogspot.com/2010/03/i-went-to-grad-school-and-all-i-got-is.html>.

Marklein, Mary Beth. “What if a college education just isn’t for everyone?”  USA TODAY. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2010-03-16-1Acollegeforall16_CV_N.htm?POE=click-refer>.

Miller Center for Public Affairs.  “Resolved: to remain a world class economic power, the US needs more college graduates.”  National Discussion and Debate Series.  <http://millercenter.org/public/debates/ed_econ>.

Montopoli, Brian. “Obama Lauds Passage of Education Reform.”  CBS NEWS.  <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20001419-503544.html>.

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