Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Re: Education

I haven't been playing it up as much these days, but I have made no secret of my goal to one day be elected President of the United States. I feel this is important to mention because I'm about to say something I've never heard any Presidential candidate say as part of their campaign speech in any of the elections I have been alive for.


It's not for everybody.

One of the things constantly impressed upon us as a nation is the idea that seeking out higher education is going to benefit us greatly in the long term. Since World War II ended and we introduced the G.I. Bill, the thought has been that you need to go to college in order to get a good career and earn a decent wage. The recent economic downturn and subsequent job loss has taught us more about objective truth than most Philosophy majors would have dreamed possible regarding that sentiment.

The Education bubble in this country is growing faster and harder than the housing one ever did. When it bursts, it's going to spell disaster for the institutions of higher learning everywhere. Universities ask for more from their students every year, causing the students to ask for more in loans from the government and private banks. Those loans have to be paid back, so we're leaving college with more and more debt than ever before. We've always been told that the loans don't matter because with a college education you'll be able to get the job that lets you pay them off entirely in 5 years time. Instead, for the last decade graduating students have faced record amounts of debt, outpacing salaries earned and easily topping $20,000 for most new graduates. With this new economic crisis bringing hiring to a standstill, more and more we're witnessing how little a college degree will actually bring you.

The problem with wanting everyone to have a degree is that it makes the degree worthless, which in turn makes many turn to going back to school for an even higher degree in order to stand out, incurring even more debt in the process. All with practically no guarantee it will actually benefit them out in the world. So, someday, and probably soon, people are going to realize that they're not getting out of college what they put into it, and will just stop going. All that delicious loan money schools love to eat and banks love to collect interest on will dry up, and there's going to be a pretty epic financial disaster on the hands of academia.

The worst part of this all of this could be avoided if we redefined what higher education means. We shouldn't be trying to strive to send everyone to advanced institutions, and as a society we need to rethink the entire method by which we prepare each generation for the working world.

First and foremost, those who will benefit from college the most are people who want to study things which are purely academic in the first place. Majors of history, political science, economics, philosophy, theology, language and literature; an environment dedicated to rigorous study is what they really need to excel in their field. Colleges and Universities are still necessary, and still extremely worthwhile - for the people interested in the pursuit of knowledge. These are people who will likely make a career out of study itself, probably earning advanced degrees in their field and going on to publish books and papers on their chosen subjects. Sure, a few of them might end up working some government or corporate job in their field, but those are the exceptions. By and large these students will end up contributing back to the specific area of study they immersed themselves in.

For others, this is about as appealing and necessary to their career as swallowing broken glass. Which if you're a professional glass swallower is pretty appealing, but by and large it doesn't really help the general population.

Someone who wants to be an actor, for example, will probably get the best start if they attend a theater academy. Artists studying art history might want to go to college, but those seeking to create new art should look into art schools - or just start making art. Computer programmers can get everything they need from a certificate course letting potential employers know they understand compu-speak. Mathematicians will probably want to spend some time at a University to appreciate the incredible depth of their field, but the engineers using that math should have the option available to immerse themselves in the study of engineering and their specific areas of interest.

What I'm proposing is that we stop encouraging our children to go to college just because it's the thing to do and make sure it will actually be helping them walk down the path they want in life. For those that won't get what they need from traditional higher learning, the elements need to be in place to provide them with the specific instruction they really need. More emphasis needs to be placed on making trade school an option for Americans by increasing their availability and the area of fields they encompass. We need more specialized institutions and programs dedicated to providing the tools necessary to excel in a chosen field and doing so quickly and effectively, with greatly reduced cost compared to four years or more in college.

Now, what about the general education college provides, you might ask? Kids are expected to walk out of college with a more well-rounded view of the world, having spent the last four years learning another language, studying history, and getting at least a rudimentary understanding of basic science. All that stuff is great, and there's no reason not to continue making sure Americans have a decent handle on that, but it should be happening in High School and earlier. Our children are up to the challenge of facing a more aggressive curriculum, and it's far past time we stopped teaching towards standardized tests and started focusing on making sure the next generation is actually learning useful material.

Debt is a terrible business. It is just that, by the way - a business. Fortunes are made every day on the debt of Americans, and new ways are constantly being thought of to keep them in debt. Higher education has fallen victim to this cycle, pushing teenagers and their parents into situations that might not be useful to them at all so that financial institutions can reap the benefits. What is the point, if there's no longer a tangible benefit to gaining employment? There isn't one, except to keep squeezing Americans for every dollar possible.

We have to rethink education altogether. If we don't, then we'll end up behind the rest of the world in all of those areas, technical and academic. Those who could become our next great thinkers will be unable to afford the costs of their studies. Those with the potential to provide America with the next wave of innovation will likely spend years wallowing behind a desk to pay off their debts, if they can even get a job in the first place.

Now, there is also a third kind of person, lest we forget. First we have people who definitely should go to college, and second comes those who definitely need better options available to them. Third, however, are those who don't really know what they want to do. There are lots of people who go to college because they have no idea what they want their future to be, and college is there to help guide them towards a choice. Someone might enter college wondering if maybe underwater basket weaving is the lifestyle for them, and exit putting out applications to med school. There needs to be a middle ground as well, and I'll be honest, I don't really have a good answer to that problem. Save to say that we need to make sure there is a cost-effective way to ensure that everyone gets the chance to go to college for at least one year without incurring a debt that will stick with them for years to come.

So that is my stance on the state of higher education. The sooner we can repair this system, the sooner we spare another generation of Americans from enormous debt and simultaneously prepare them more for their prospective careers than our current system often allows.

It's a lot of work, to be sure, but we all know it takes a lot to get a good education.


B.Graham said...

People come from all over the world to attend our state-funded Universities, and yet vouchers to go to good-Lord-anything-but-public high schools sell like hot cakes.

Something should be done about this, first and foremost.

Brett said...

I think the option for the third group of people is community college. Cheaper courses, right in your neighborhood, let you sample the career paths you might take without the full college commitment.

I totally agree with you on this, but a devil's advocate question: What happens if, say, most engineers start getting their education in (hopefully cheaper) trade schools, but a university education - particularly at a top institution, with the top engineers in the field teaching and lots of money to fund student projects - is still more valued in the marketplace? Then university-educated engineers do better than trade-educated ones, and we end up with an upwards creep, where, in order to be competitive, engineering students with money exodus from trade schools and head back to universities to get the edge.

Part of the problem might be overall lack of jobs. If there are way fewer jobs in a field than candidates, then those candidates have to fight for more (and more expensive) credentials in order to get those few jobs. I'm pretty sure this is how we ended up in this education situation - it's strict competition. The more credentials are required to get a job, the more expensive they get - supply and demand.

So what would really have to happen is almost a policy change, or an attitude change - employers would have to decide to willingly ignore higher credentials, or at least give trade-school-educated a chance. I think this is difficult, because half the hiring decisions publicly traded companies make go along the lines of "we have to hire people with the credentials that make stock-buyers want to buy our stock," not necessarily "we have to hire the best folks for the job, even if they only have a GED."

David Pratt said...

I agree with your point, Brett; it will take a complete rethinking of what constitutes "qualified" in the business world for this idea to really have merit. One possible solution would be to have schools dedicated to a single vocation start out associated with other schools. That way when one completed their course they would receive a certificate (or what have you) bearing the name of the partnered institution for graduates to show off to potential employers. A system like this would even make it possible for those students to supplement their education by taking courses at that school if they so desire, though I'd imagine it would have to be classes beneficial to their chosen field.

Hopefully in the long run this would lead to the people concerned about the bottom line becoming so used to hiring from specialized programs or schools that they look at those names first, rather than that of the institution.

ali d said...

"More emphasis needs to be placed on making trade school an option for Americans by increasing their availability and the area of fields they encompass."

Even more important than increasing availability and depth of focus, I think, is removing the stigma that has been placed on a trade school education. Because there is such a push toward college as the obvious and only next step after high school, teenagers who decide to take their lives a different path are often seen as less capable than their collegiate counterparts. I say good for them! We need trade school grads in this world.

I may get flak for putting it this way, but here it is anyway: I can edit your 20 page journal article or find hidden symbolism in poetry like a champ. I cannot, however, fix my toilet if it breaks. Or replace the brakes in my car. We need plumbers and electricians and mechanics in this world. If more and more students avoid these fields because they're seen as less legitimate than a college degree, we're soon going to find ourselves lacking the men and women who provide us with services that we otherwise take for granted.

"So, someday, and probably soon, people are going to realize that they're not getting out of college what they put into it, and will just stop going."

I'm not so sure I agree with you here, David, because of the aforementioned stigma. I think people who don't belong in college are going to continue to go to avoid judgment by their parents and their peers.

I also wonder how much we share this mindset because of our shared background. College was the obvious next step for us. And while I agree that there are many students attending universities who are wasting their time and money (and often our resources), for some entire communities college is nothing but a pipe dream. Perhaps the goal in these communities is to encourage students to even consider a trade school rather than fall into the first mediocre minimum-wage drudge job they can get.

B.Graham said...

I think Ali makes a great point, considering all four of us commenters so far come from affluent suburban backgrounds, where not only college, but college graduation was assumed. This is not so everywhere, or even in most places in our country; we are of the elite and it's important to remember that.