Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.
Several years ago, I worked a job where we had a queue of assignments and a pool of workers who would take the first item from the queue that was fed by various account managers. It was first-come-first-serve unless there was something in the “Rush” queue. Sometimes, when we were short-handed or had too much work to do, we would get backed up. It would take longer and longer for items to work there way through the queue. Except for the Rushes, which would initially be done right away. Of course, as time progressed, more and more would become listed as Rush jobs because, while they didn’t technically need it tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, they couldn’t wait the 6-8 weeks the normal pile was taking. There came a point where 80% of the items in the queue were labeled “Rush.”
Before long, we had a new stack. “Super Rush.” This, shockingly, didn’t actually solve the problem.
I am reminded of this when the subject of higher education comes up. This country is run by people who have college degrees. It’s run by people where everyone they know has college degrees. It is, then, completely understandable that the solution for those who are not as economically well off as they and their friends are is “Go to college!” The economic melt-down of the latter part of last decade demonstrated that college isn’t even enough, ultimately. And it saddles you with debt. But people are looking at the debt end rather than the college end.
Now, defenders of the supremacy of college point to the fact that even when working in not-college-specific industries, college graduates tend to earn more than non-graduates. But of course they do. They have “Rush” stamped on their forehead. They get to go to the front of the line. That doesn’t mean the solution is to put the Rush stamp on everything. Not that anybody is advocating that, exactly. Not explicitly. Not overtly. And, in their mind, it’s not so much about the stamp on the forehead as it is about what you learn while in college.
I don’t mean to dismiss what we actually do get from college. It’s not insignificant. I learned a lot both from a vocational standpoint and from a personal standpoint. It was a great experience. Or, at least, it was for me. I have a certain temperament and a certain intellectual curiosity that made me suited for college in a way I was never suited for high school. A lot of people, though, don’t really have that. By placing so much emphasis on college, we’re often trying to shoehorn them into our own path. We’re pushing on them what worked for us and universalizing from our own preferences, talents, and experiences.
But college will get you ahead, and so it’s objectively good advice. That brings us back to the Rush stamp. The end result being that we (as students, parents, and taxpayers) are spending tens of thousands of dollars to save employer HR departments the time it takes to go through applications. Why not? Just weed out those without a degree. Too many with a degree? Weed out those with the wrong degree. Then complain about how employees aren’t lining up at your door-step, pre-trained precisely for the job you have an opening for. Or hire someone from India on a visa.
I would prefer a shift away from the notion that college is ideal for all, or even most people. That we should be funding college for most, or that they should be going into debt to fund it themselves. I’d like more effort put into trade schools and votechs. I’d rather more government funding in the form of merit scholarships to state universities (in some cases, tied to area-of-study). Also, doing a better job of figuring out who should be going to college (many who aren’t should) and who should be pursuing something else (many who go to college would be better served by alternative pathways).
There’s a lot of things I would like and that I’d rather.
Unfortunately, I really don’t see how we get from here to there. Our egalitarianism doesn’t like to admit that large portions of the population aren’t really suited for college. The demographics of what the distribution may look like would be troubling. Our snobbery has a hard time not exalting that which was valuable to us. But mostly, it’s a collective action problem. Not to go to college, if you can, is to unilaterally disarm in the education arms race.
Despite all I say above, I am going to push my daughter and any siblings of her to go to college. Partially because I believe they will be suited to it because it does run in our blood (particularly on the mother’s side). But partially because if they don’t, they’ll lose job opportunities to those who will. So even if we adopt a #2 and #3, and it doesn’t look like they’re very suited for it, I’ll nudge anyway. Nudge pretty hard. I may be a skeptic of the system, but I’m not going to ignore the rules of the game.
And so I have a hard time seeing our system doing anything but extending indefinitely. Or at least as long as it can. College will become increasingly expensive. We’ll keep going into debt. Job prospects for graduates will become less and less secure. As more disinterested or marginal students are encouraged to go, fail outs and drop out rates and the consequences will be enormously depressing. To set ourselves apart, post-graduate schooling will become required, or internships.
The bright side, if it can even be counted as one, is that which can’t sustain itself indefinitely won’t. Maybe, at some point, enough will be enough and there will be a collective re-thinking of things. Or, perhaps even more hopefully, we will find ways to make it certification-creep less expensive. That will touch on my next installment.