Don’t Go To College? WTF?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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3 responses to “Don’t Go To College? WTF?

  1. The is an excellent post and the points in it should be made regularly and loudly by those of us who value education to counter the incessant drum beat of the right wing and the commercial media that college is merely a trade school, equivalent to A/C repair school and how-to-become-a-paralegal online courses. I agree with all that you have said, but allow me to add two more points:

    1. The cost of college/university is largely driven by things that are not related to the quality of the education. One of the biggest drivers is the competition to land in the top spots of rankings, as in U.S. News and elsewhere. So colleges play the statistics game to drive up their scores. One key factor is how low the acceptance-to-appicaton rate is. (The lower the ratio the more “exclusive” the school, so the thinking goes.) Plus there is an incentive to drive up the acceptance-to-offer ration (for similar reasons). To do this they offer a wide variety of candy to prospective students: Natiionally ranked sports teams (with promises of many TV appearances and bowl games and other championships to go to). Star students (The Ivy Leagues seem to have descended to groveling for movie stars, often by gutting academic departments in order to increase “acting”, theater and media courses and majors.) Super-star faculty. NYU was exposed as having provided immense low or no interest loans to select factuality to allow them to purchase vacation homes in the Hamptons, for example. All sorts of high end amenities unrelated to education. I recall reading that Columbia University’s dining department saying that it was losing an exorbitant number of jars of Nutella, because students swiped them to eat while studying. They said that they would not clamp down on that but might have to curtail other favorites like lobster tail. Seriously. I don’t recall having any form of shellfish during college or graduate school. I guess I did not carefully read the catalogs.

    There is numerous other ways that colleges waste money. The famous commencement speaker who gets paid in “expenses” more than what is charged for a year or two to go to the school. Cafes in libraries. (I still recall the posters when I went explaining how food attracted vermin which destroyed books. I guess we have entered the post-book library.) Festivals. Parites. Majors that are entirely useless by any stretch of the imagines (How many professors of TV do we really need?)

    But college sports to me is the key indicator of the problem. Universities have become wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Athletic Department, which in turn are mere farm teams for big time professional sports (which in turn get all sorts of public accommodations including big tax and antitrust breaks). This is patent to all. There are schools, like Kentucky or Duke, who hire coaches with salaries larger than the payrolls of entire departments. The two highest paid state employees, by far, in Connecticut are the coaches of the mens and women’s basketball teams at UConn. Not only is this poor allocation of resources, but the behavior of the coaches, whose only interest is winning and increasing his compensation via endorsements and otherwise, is not what “education” used to be about. And even administrations will admit the power. The President of Ohio State answering a question of whether he would fire a football coach (after allegations of NCAA violations) said he was more worried if the coach would fire him.

    Second, I agree that college education cannot be compared to a stream of future income. It is, after all, or it used to be, more than a trade school. And it’s not just that it’s possible to obtaining training in lower paid and satisfying jobs. College, done right, ought to be a place where education in the broad sense takes place. Where a foundation in knowledge in human history and civilization (Western, Eastern and Southern, for lack of a better term) is acquired. Education was once thought to be the highest aspiration of the Whole Man (or woman, of course). Colleges ought to allow students to become familiar with the greatest thoughts, art, accomplishments, and aspirations of our species. There ought to Art Departments because Art is one of the highest achievements even though the projected income street is much lower than that produced by the Accounting Department. College should be where students learn things they would never come into contact with before. Whatever the virtues of trade schools, it is unlikely that a student there will run into Virgil, Raphael, Haydn or Chekhov. Nor is there other places where students can spend uncluttered time thinking about the purpose of life and our relation to others, politically, ethically, philosophically and economically.

    Reducing college to simply a calculation about future earnings cheapens it, discourages students from exploring those things our citizens should explore and depletes our country. Of course there is a reason for doing it. The right wants to (and has been successful at) defunding higher education for a long time. They want to continue as part of their culture wars and their view that everything belongs to those who can pay. The defunding of colleges is part of the crisis in higher education. But none of it can be turned around until the tone of the discussion is changed.

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  2. Hi, I really appreciate your taking my jotted down notes and giving them added heft and insight. Another aspect of this is how, in fact, the dismantling began at the level of primary and secondary education. We are all but back to a Scopes trial level.

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  3. I see now that I should have not pressed “post” before carefully proofreading since I can’t edit. So I’m hoping that all will just mentally edit to make sure the subjects and the verbs agree throughout.

    And yes, you are quite right that public schools should be better funded as well.

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