There are a plethora of articles out there on different ideas about what’s wrong with higher education, and how to fix it, and if I read even a decent percentage of them, I’d be here all day, every day, reading them and responding to them. Which is part of why I don’t generally go out of my way to read such things, or to respond to them. But, then, sometimes, something comes to your plate, e.g. when it is shared by a friend directly on her blog, and so you end up reading it, and then having thoughts that you feel you need to get out.
I don’t in any way presume to have all the answers; these are very complicated matters, and I have not yet worked out my views or positions entirely. But, here are my thoughts at the moment, in response to a blogpost entitled “The Inability of Poor Students to Navigate College is Not the Problem, College is the Problem,” posted on the blog Peer-Reviewed by my Neurons.
In his blog post, Mike Horowitz presents the problem in a wonderfully cogent manner:
Nobody questions a system that’s supposed to be the key American vehicle for social mobility, but which often has a sticker price of $150,000. If I told you a poor African country had a system that allowed impoverished villagers to have a middle class life in the city, but that it cost $20,000 to take part in it, you would immediately say it’s perverse. Yet that’s essentially what we have in America.
Yes, well, when you put it that way. The cost of education in this country is ridiculous. I was fortunate to be born into a relatively well-to-do family, in the top bracket of the family income question on every application. But that doesn’t mean that my family, on an income of over $100,000/year, would have been able to pay upwards of $30-40,000 on my tuition and fees every year, out-of-pocket. The idea that $100,000/year places you in the top bracket, and thus rather ineligible for need-based financial aid, when your family still absolutely can’t afford it out-of-pocket, and when there are plenty of other families out there with much, much higher incomes, still seems an absurdity to me, but that’s a subject for another time. Returning to the point, yes, in a society where we expect, or should I say demand, that everyone go through college (at least) if they want a solid, middle-class life, we are charging way too much for school, and putting far too much financial pressure on families, and on students, to pay for it.
Horowitz offers four points towards a solution. Frankly, (spoilers), I find these quite problematic. But, let’s go through them.
1. Unbundle the bachelor’s degree. Horowitz argues, as many others have, that we should allow career-minded folks, especially those in the STEM fields, to be able to focus on just those fields, just those requirements, and that general ed / distribution requirements are an unnecessary burden, making it much more difficult, and more expensive, for students to get through school. He writes that “knowing a foreign language appeals to our elitist notion of a liberal arts education,” but while I have no problem admitting to being an elitist, I think there’s a lot more to it than simply appealing to some elitist ideal.
What is the purpose of college? Is the purpose of college job-training and professional qualifications? A lot of people, a lot of departments/universities, seem to be going that way. But I stand by the idea that education is not purely for the purposes of providing qualifications for a career – it’s about producing a more educated and capable citizenry. It’s about teaching critical thinking skills, the ability to form an argument, and an expanded understanding of civics, economics, history, politics, and social issues beyond the minimum they teach in high school, thus allowing you to go out there and be an informed voter, a racially/culturally/gender-sensitive member of society, who is capable of managing their own finances, of understanding political issues, of drafting reports, etc. etc. This isn’t about some elitist ideal that everyone should be well-versed in the elite cultural classics simply for the sake of cultural elitism. It’s about very practical concerns towards producing a better citizenry, a better society, in which every member is less racist, less sexist, less imperialist/ultra-nationalistic, and more capable of making informed, intelligent decisions in everything they do, from the political positions they support and the way they vote, to the products they buy. When I look at my STEM-major students who, in their fourth year of college, have never analyzed a document, have never written a college paper, I seriously wonder how these people are going to interpret the news with a critical eye and make informed political decisions, and how they are going to draft reports, in quality English, in whatever science/tech/engineering career they end up pursuing.
2. End College Admissions & 3. Make Classes Free.
End college admissions? I’m not so sure what I think about this one. It’s all in all far too complex an issue, and I just don’t know what to say, or where I stand. It involves far too many questions and far too drastic/dramatic a logistical change for me to even begin to think about how it would shake out.
As for free classes, yes. Absolutely. Public universities should be free, as they once were. Or, at the very least, there should be some free option. Charge for Columbia and NYU, but not for CUNY, as was the case not so long ago. My grandparents, Holocaust survivors who came to this country with basically nothing after X years in a series of concentration camps, followed by X years in refugee camps, struggled the entire rest of their lives just to put food on the table. And yet, they were able to put their sons through college because Brooklyn College (part of the public City University of New York / CUNY system, and a pretty decent school) was free at that time, as public school should be. As an article on democratic socialism I quite like explains (emphasis added),
Unfortunately, in America, the public education system ends with high school. Most of Europe now provides low cost or free college education for their citizens. This is because their citizens understand that an educated society is a safer, more productive and more prosperous society. Living in such a society, everyone benefits from public education.
EXAMPLE European style social program for college: Your college classes are paid for through government taxes. When you graduate from that college and begin your career, you also start paying an extra tax for fellow citizens to attend college.
Question – You might be thinking how is that fair? If you’re no longer attending college, why would you want to help everyone else pay for their college degree?
Answer – Every working citizen pays a tax that is equivalent to say, $20 monthly. If you work for 40 years and then retire, you will have paid $9,600 into the Social college program. So you could say that your degree ends up costing only $9,600. When everyone pools their money together and the program is non-profit, the price goes down tremendously. This allows you to keep more of your hard earned cash!
4. Charge Money For Acquiring the Credential, Not For the Learning.
In his last point, Horowitz suggests that education itself should be free, and the monetary charge should come into play only when seeking to acquire the official credentials that prove that you’ve earned those qualifications.
I can appreciate the sentiment – people are paying enough, in terms of time, effort, opportunity cost, to take these classes, and shouldn’t information/education be free, anyway? On some level, I sympathize. I really do.
But, isn’t it true that every time you’ve had to pay some exorbitant amount for just a piece of paper, you’ve felt nickeled-and-dimed? Two hundred dollars for the SATs, $40 for the college application fee, $100 for the diploma, $15 for each copy of the transcript you want to request to have sent to your grad school… Never mind “nickel-and-dime,” this is costing me Benjamins!
And then you get into a situation where people know they have the knowledge, the skills, and that all that’s standing in their way is some bureaucratic technicality of the piece of paper, the official credential, that they either can’t afford, or don’t wish to pay for on principle (who likes paying tens or hundreds of dollars for some office worker to just hit “Print” on their computer?. This leads to either frustration when employers insist on the piece of paper – a piece of paper which, ultimately, represents nothing at all but that you have paid your forty bucks or whatever it may be – or, it leads to a total circumvention of the system, when employers take you based on your skills and knowledge, acquired through free classes, even without the formal credential.
If it were possible to have everyone’s college degrees paid for by government funding, and/or by grants and awards, such that no one had to take out loans or pay out of pocket for college, I think that would be a wonderful thing. Just like many of us enjoy for at least some portion of our graduate school careers. But I don’t think that charging money for pieces of paper is the answer.