The American middle class is shrinking. More and more people are falling into poverty. College graduates are weighed down by a millstone of debt that shapes their futures in restrictive ways. And we hear, growing louder, a surprising question: Is College Necessary?
We have our first African American president. Minorities of color are suffering a slower than average recovery from the Great Recession, unskilled jobs have become dead end jobs, and we hear, growing louder, the increasingly familiar question: Is College Necessary? Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, is American historical amnesia so pervasive that anyone in this country can actually suggest narrowing educational options?
Why is the question not: How do we reduce the cost of college? College applicants have always been self-selecting, from those for whom it is assumed from the cradle that of course they would attend college, to those who claw their way up from impossibility to possibility.
The full cost of that college education at many private institutions has become prohibitive for all but the most rarified reaches of the one percent. So logic dictates that if you can’t afford it, perhaps you should look for alternatives to higher education. And let’s be clear, this is not about the cost of a college degree, this is about the cost of an education, although young people are increasingly encouraged to restrict their choices to fields of study that rank highest on some salary index, foregoing the possibility of discovering work that is both fulfilling and reasonably well paying.
In fact, logic dictates no such choices. Logic calls for examining the reasons why the cost of higher education rises at an unconscionable rate and finding ways to reverse that process. Logic calls us to ask why private institutions are piling up billions in endowment money and offering 24-hour sushi bars as part of the educational experience. Logic leads to questions about the exorbitant cost of a single textbook, about the all but universal practice of hiring part time, outrageously underpaid, adjunct faculty to teach a majority of undergraduate students.
These eternally junior faculty members receive no job benefits, no job predictability from semester to semester, no increase in pay over the years. They have little say about what they teach, to how many, and on what schedule. They are the highly educated, shamelessly exploited, utterly disillusioned infrastructure of much of American higher education. Many maintain hope of an equitable leg-up in academia long beyond the time such hope is reasonable. And when they give up their chosen vocation and find decent work elsewhere, the next cog is moved in to fill the gap.
But the solution, we are told, is to encourage middle and working class young people to see college as too rich for their blood, as an inevitable commitment to a level of debt that affects everything from their ability to be homeowners to when they will be able to consider retirement. Beware, they are told, that’s not for you. The unspoken admonition is right there: Remember your place.