In this political season, promises of free college tuition for all sounds really great. Student debt is a terrible burden. But free college isn’t going to make everyone equal. There will still be Princetons and CUNYs, Oberlins and Arizona States.
College for All?
Promoting “college for all” as a way to increase equality is a complicated, confusing, and ultimately illogical means to a worthy end. As David Labaree points out, with competitive schooling as we have it, “someone has to fail.”
Even if every individual attended college, not every individual would become “successful,” just as not all individuals will be above average. Nor will sending every individual to college eradicate poverty or inequality. The “haves” will still have more.
Even if everyone had a four-year degree, there would not be jobs for all graduates, at least not jobs requiring the content of those educations—unless we address jobs directly.
So if the goal of college is full employment or inequality eradication, this goal will not be met. In John Marsh’s book Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality, he explains why “college for all” is bound to be unsuccessful—at least at the level of an entire society. (For individuals it may be different.) The reason has mainly to do with getting the argument backward: first we need to address poverty. Education may follow.
In fall 2012 the New York Times hosted a debate: Should everyone go to college, or is college a waste of time? (The Chronicle of Higher Education had a similar forum in 2009; one commenter noted that if even the Chronicle of Higher Education was questioning this, we are far down the road of doubt.)
The question is usually framed as: Is college worth the (economic) investment? Economists give competing answers, though the general belief is that despite the expense and forgone wages, the lifetime earnings of college graduates are much higher than those of high school graduates: the “college premium.” An allied inquiry asks which schools and which majors provide the highest “return on investment.”
But, say the old elite, such as the Phi Beta Kappa society (full disclosure: I’m a member), college is not simply about getting a job. The model of a liberal arts education, with a luxurious curriculum that establishes a floor for what young students may need to know in the future, hangs on in some colleges and universities: Great Books, Kant, postcolonialism, critical thinking, the basics of relativity theory, and so on.
In community colleges and in the increasingly popular vocational training for business, engineering, information technology, medical professions, education, and the like, there is no time for Kant when examinations have to be passed and bills have to be paid. (There are those “gen eds,” but even here probably not too much Kant.) Getting the credential as quickly and cheaply as possible is the primary goal.
At a farm-to-table dinner in Chautauqua, New York, I met a young woman who worked in recruiting at a nearby community college. Though she herself had a four-year degree, she was passionate about the “value” provided by the community college. “Why would you pay so much more for the basic classes in a four-year school,” she asked, “when you could do it comfortably at the local community college, and live at home?”
In summer 2014 Starbucks partnered with Arizona State University to offer some employees compensation for enrolling in ASU’s online courses.
But who is enrolling in these courses? Is it the children of the elite?
The costs are real. Individuals, right now, don’t have time to wait for the revolution.
One of the ideas from the 2011 Occupy movement that caught on easily (and led to an offshoot, Occupy Student Debt) had to do with _college debt, now staggering, and filled with treacherous traps for a lifetime. Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and many others have attempted to get at this problem from the side of banks and the government, limiting the amount students are obligated to repay.
From the economic point of view, with the issue of cost front and center, suggestions have included designing cheap degrees, paying for college for promising students, or skipping college entirely. For an individual, it is statistically advantageous to go to college, and preferably complete it, though the likelihood of (1) enrolling, (2) succeeding, and (3) finishing a degree, especially a four-year degree, is low for disadvantaged youth, first-generation college students, and minorities. . Not only that, but they often end up financially worse off than they were when they began.
In a system where the college degree signals a certain kind of commitment and the character that accompanies it, anyone without a degree will be seen as falling short—unless she can signal this information in some other form.
Those already solidly in the middle class, with all the cultural and social capital they need, already knowing “how to learn” and reading at a high level, confident about their abilities, able to make calls to top executives, can take PayPal investor Peter Thiel up on his offer of $50,000 for two years to carry out an entrepreneurial objective as long as they do not go to college; or they can get connected with “UnCollege,” pay $31,000, and be led on a yearlong self-creation journey after high school.
In the increasingly unequal United States, those who already have evidence of their virtue can forgo proving it through the college degree and can concentrate on the substance of what they are learning, whether in or out of school. Those desperate to confirm their abilities have no option other than sitting in classrooms for as long as it takes.
Yes, the substance of college can be transformative. It can be the pivotal moment in a young life. It can be a needed and substantive step to a complex career. It can change lives. Or it can be an empty but costly slog through dreaded, meaningless requirements.
But if it is merely for a credential, then let us please stop.
And if everyone pursues the same credential, but the credential is mainly used to sort everyone, then this credential will not be enough, and some will have better credentials, more credentials, or more of something.
Dreams are great. Big dreams are terrific. But misleading dreams are dangerous.
_ _ _ _
This is excerpted from Chapter 11, "Both Sides Now of a Learning Revolution," of Susan D. Blum, "I Love Learning; I Hate School": An Anthropology of College (Cornell University Press, 2016).