Expensive 4-year colleges not for everyone?
One of the culprits causing the increasing inequality in our society is the absurdly high cost of college. All college costs have gone up far, far faster than inflation would justify.
At the same time, the idea that everyone should try to go to college has gained ground and employers have started using the B.A. degree as a basic screening device for all sorts of jobs.
This has resulted in too many young people going deeply into debt to attend college even when they are not qualified to do real college work or even interested in doing so. Unfortunately, college administrators have encouraged this phenomenon, seeing students as “customers” to be catered to with watered-down courses, inflated grades and lax disciplinary policies.
This has long been a topic in our household as I and other members of my family have been and are teachers. Then I recently picked up a book by prominent social policy analyst Charles Murray titled “Real Education.” This is one of the more interesting critiques of our current educational system that I have read, and well worth the time of many parents and high schoolers considering their futures.
As Murray points out, we do not live in Lake Wobegone. Not only are almost half of our children below average academically, but only 20 percent or so have the native linguistic, logical and mathematical ability needed for rigorous college work.
This is not to say that those with lower academic potential are lesser persons. Many other abilities, such as ethics, compassion, sound judgment, “common sense,” emotional intelligence and maturity, etc. are as or more important in life than academic ability.
I haven’t space here to present all Murray’s arguments and evidence. But here’s one of his examples:
He presents the case of a high school senior of not very high academic ability considering whether he should be an electrician or go to college and try to become a business manager.
He has helped his uncle, who is an electrician, and knows he would like and do very well in this work. He also knows he dislikes being confined to a desk any length of time. But his guidance counselor, under pressure to send as many kids as possible to college, tells him to consider a college degree in business.
He looks up average salaries of business managers versus electricians on a government website. The average for a manager is about double that for an electrician.
But averages mislead. The truth is his native abilities are such that he is unlikely to be more than a lower-level manager who will receive few or no promotions. He may be confined to a desk and cubicle all day. He may have poor job security, as lower and middle-level managers are among the first to be let go when business falls off. It doesn’t seem likely he will enjoy this situation.
But he has the native ability to be a very successful electrician, even to build up a substantial business employing other electricians. He will not be behind a desk most of the day and will have the reward of feeling successful in his work.
Furthermore, if he were advised by his counselor to compare the high end of the salary spectrum for electricians with the low end of the spectrum for managers, he would see that he could make much more money as a highly regarded electrician.
Murray states that while most people need training beyond high school, expensive residential colleges are not the most appropriate places for this training. He suggests that certification exams, such as those accountants, electricians and plumbers take, would make much more sense than a B.A. for many of those now trying to go to college for vocational reasons.
Such exams and the community colleges, online courses and other programs that would prepare young people for them would do the job more effectively. That would be especially true assuming the certification exams report actual grades, not just pass or fail, to prospective employers.
The reporting of actual grades would even the playing field between those who can afford expensive schools and those who receive local, less expensive training. It would enable employers to make better hiring decisions.
Both industry and government need to provide more financial support for this type of serious vocational training, as is done in other industrial countries.
Many of you will cry that students will be missing a “liberal” education. Murray states that the most important elements of a liberal education, particularly history, ethics and good citizenship, should be thoroughly covered during the K-12 years.
I would add that knowledge of all the world’s great ethical teachers, including the religious and secular ones, should be developed throughout the K-12 years. While it is certainly important to improve the rigor of our K-12 literacy, science and math standards, we must not neglect the subjects that support the development of wisdom and citizenship.
Mary Boland’s column appears on the third Saturday of each month. She is a retired teacher and journalist, a proud grandmother and a longtime resident of Carbondale.
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