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.
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.