Monday, February 11, 2013

Is College for Everyone?

As a professor at a community college, I certainly believe that anyone who wants a college education deserves a shot at it. That being said, many students who show up in my classes are not ready for college, for a number of reasons. Some lack the academic preparation; some lack the maturity and self-discipline. Some are not self-motivated, but are only here to appease their parents. Others find they can't learn very well by sitting still in a classroom or in front of a computer. Many students simply can't find the time to get their work done because they are also working full-time, taking care of their kids, and meeting other commitments.

Now, many of these students who show up unprepared make crucial adjustments in their lives during their first few semesters that enable them to succeed. Some, however, do not, and I do not see them again. What happens to them? Are they social failures because they could not navigate their way through college?

This week my students are reading an excerpt from Tamara Draut's book Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead. Her basic argument is that the path to adulthood in American society is much more fraught with economic peril than it was a couple generations ago, and as a result, many of us take much longer to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood (career and financial stability, marriage, home-ownership, parenthood), if we ever achieve them at all.

While a college education is generally thought of as a key tool in meeting the challenges of our new economy, Draut shows how, in some ways, college can actually be part of the problem more than a solution. Because many professions require B.A. or graduate degrees "to get out of the entry-level track," more and more young people are realizing that college is usually necessary to make a decent living. But when they try to finance a college education, they are introduced to the "debt-for-diploma" system, as they take on staggering amounts of student loans. Draut claims that the average college graduate hitting the job market is carrying about $20,000 in student-loan debt, plus a couple thousand more in credit-card debt. (I believe the figure for average student-loan debt is closer to $26,000 now.)

The lucky ones will land a good job with their new degree in hand and be able, barely, to make their loan payments and also pay their other bills. But what about the ones who didn't make it to graduation? What about the ones who graduated, but can't find a job when so few employers are hiring? What kinds of jobs are actually being created in our economy? Draut cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as she makes the following claim:
"The largest job growth, accounting for 58 percent of new jobs, will be those requiring only work-related training. These jobs are primarily in the low-wage retail and food sector, including such jobs as sales associates, food preparation, cashiers, and waitstaff."
This prompts me to ask the following questions: Is it right for us to push so many young people into college when most of the jobs being created don't require a degree? A degree may give you a chance to compete for a better job, but it doesn't guarantee you'll get that better job. Wouldn't it better for us to advocate for higher wages and benefits for people who work the low-wage jobs described above? Shouldn't a waitress, a cashier, or someone who works in the mall be able to earn a decent living--to have access to quality healthcare, childcare, and housing?

People who really want to go to college should absolutely have that chance--and it shouldn't require taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to accomplish it. But college shouldn't be a requirement for anyone who wants to make a living wage. This is why I think raising the minimum wage is just as important for us, as a society, as lowering the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Secondary schools need to do a better job of identifying kids whose talents are outside the realm of traditional education. Trade schools should be much more available, accepted and cover a broader range of career than they do currently. What good is a college education for a student who barely scrapes by, is left in deep debt, and ends up with a degree in such a highly competitive field that he ends up working at a department store selling microwave ovens?

I also agree with your point about people in low-end jobs deserving a livable wage and health benefits. It's so easy to say, "if they wanted health benefits, they should have gotten a better education." But a closer examination of the reality of that would show them it isn't always possible or practical. Besides, we will always need plumbers, mechanics, medical assistants, etc. If we are going to need and use their services, they deserve to be able to provide a decent living for themselves while providing necessary services for us.