The $10,000 hoop

Has higher education become an exercise in futility for most Americans?

Published September 14, 1998 10:35AM (EDT)

Americans don't agree on much. We fight about social spending, health care, sex, the military, parenting, religion, sex, the size of the federal
government, taxes, sex, but there is one thing we seem to agree on: Education
is a good thing, and more education is a better thing. We all know we're in a time of political paralysis, when the most active thing official
Washington does is shut down the government. Yet in the past two years, below
the radar screen of scandal, the president and Congress have crafted
legislation to support higher education to the tune of more than $40 billion a
year. President Clinton spoke of making two years of college just as universal as
high school is now. Earlier this year, Clinton, in his State of the Union
address, announced that higher education is an American birthright.

Apparently, most of us don't dispute such ideas. The Department of Education says that enrollment in college will surpass an all-time high of just under 15 million students this academic year, and well over half of high school seniors now go to college. Each year, we spend more than $175 billion on colleges and universities. States allocate vast amounts of tax revenue, the federal government subsidizes research and individuals go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to send either themselves or their children to college.

Conventional wisdom on the issue is clear and unequivocal: College is a
necessary prerequisite for skilled jobs. That piece of paper embossed with the words "graduated from" is universally believed to be a ticket to a better life, a better job, a more affluent and rewarding future. Just think of all the Hollywood images of college: pensive, clean young people -- usually white -- watching as charming Professor X lectures them about deep philosophical questions that will give them the keys to the universe. After several years of these experiences, the graduate emerges ready to land that first job and take that first step on a professional ladder of success and citizenship.

Oh, come on. Today's college student is more likely to be a woman in her
30s attending night school at one of those cinder-block community colleges
designed by the same people who build prisons. Halls of Ivy? Not for 95
percent of the American college students today.

Higher education has been romanticized past the point of reasonable
discussion. We spend all this money, expend all this energy, go into
debt and exhaust an ever-rising portion of national resources. Yet few of us
ask what college is supposed to provide that leads to better jobs and a better
life. What are we supposed to learn in college? Politicians and educators
extol the power of college to create a competitive, highly skilled work force
that can hold its own in the international economy. But how does college bring
that about? How does sitting in a lecture on Plato make our superconductors
more competitive? How do gendered interpretations of Shakespeare make the
American college graduate a good citizen? How does Accounting 101 teach you to deal with real people in a real job? In what way does learning calculus
make you thrive in your job as a Blockbuster store manager, which,
incidentally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as a college level job?

How did we get to this point? How is it that anyone who wants a halfway
decent job now has no choice but to go to college, whether or not he did well in high school, whether or not it has been 10 years since she last entered a
classroom? What if you're a single mother with two children already working a
full-time job who has no money for health care or child care but has to go $5,000 into debt to get a two-year associate degree at the local
community college in order to get that $3,000 pay raise? What if you're an 18-year-old guy who wants to set up a trucking business but who can't get a loan from the bank because without the degree you're seen as a high credit risk? Should you be compelled to go to college? Will anything you learn at college truly prepare you for the life of an insurance claims adjuster, or a bank teller, or a paralegal, or even an editorial assistant at a hip Internet magazine that emphasizes creativity and initiative but has little use for formal credentials?

These questions rarely get asked, and when they do, the stock response is to attack the questioner rather than to answer the question. Wondering if
universal higher education is really such a good thing is likely to get the
wonderer charged with reckless elitism and carrying a concealed conservative weapon. If advanced degrees are now required for any job of substance, then suggesting that advanced degrees are not for everyone is tantamount to consigning the un-colleged to lives as second-class citizens forever stuck in the ranks of the working poor. If degrees are totems that signify the bearer as competent, intelligent and job worthy, then questioning whether everyone needs degrees is equivalent to asking if everyone needs 2,000 calories a day.

Fair enough, but aren't we forgetting something? Who ever said that college degrees signify competence? Who said that universal higher education makes for a better-prepared work force? Shouldn't we be taking a hard look at those assumptions?

We could say that a college degree signifies that the student has thought
deep thoughts and learned critical analysis by reading the Great Books. But
less than 20 percent of today's students take liberal arts courses, and even fewer
major in a liberal arts discipline. We could say that college should be a timeout, a time of growth, a time for self-knowledge, but only a privileged few
can afford that timeout, unless public funding for higher education
approached, oh, $1 trillion a year. The fact is that we get pretty
fuzzy when we think about college. We like the idea that college is about
liberal arts, and we like to believe that college also serves some utilitarian
purpose preparing students for jobs. But no one can say with any certainty
that reading Plato does anything to improve the competitiveness of the
American work force, and what's more, most people in college don't read Plato
or any other Great Book.

The fact is that the liberal arts ideal is not what lies behind the massive
growth of higher education in the past 20 years, and it is not why most of
those 15 million students will go to college, or why their parents will go
into debt, or why state legislators will reluctantly allocate even more money to the cause of college-educated masses.

Universal higher education is a response to the failings (real or imagined)
of high school. Students routinely graduate high school barely able to write,
barely able to read and not at all able to think critically. The situation is
especially dire in urban public schools. Colleges now spend an inordinate
amount of time on remedial education, on the teaching of basic skills that
students in the rest of the developed world learn in high school. To a large
extent, we've simply extended the period of basic education into college
because our primary and secondary schools are not doing what they ought to be.

Universal higher education also stems from a long-held immigrant belief that education is a vehicle of social advancement. In inextricably linking jobs, mobility, individual success and economic competitiveness to college, we've bought the dubious notion that a college education is necessary for any skilled job. But it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Faced with a choice between two applicants, one with a college degree and one without, almost any
employer will chose the one with a college degree, even if the degree doesn't
relate at all to the job at hand. College graduates are presumed to be better
qualified, whether they have learned anything in college classrooms that make
them better qualified.

For instance, a 29-year-old divorced mother who barely finished high school and who lives in a marginal urban neighborhood may have a hard-earned savvy about families, children and the streets. That may make her a superb youth counselor. But faced with a choice between her and a 21-year-old college graduate with a degree in sociology, many state agencies will hire the college graduate over the divorced mother. The college graduate may come from a more affluent background, and she may have never set foot in a ghetto until that point, but heck, she's read Durkheim and done intensive case studies, and she even interned at the local hospital for six weeks during her junior year, and more to the point, she has a college degree.

To be fair, the college graduate may end up doing a brilliant job, but there's nothing about her background that suggests that she will do even a competent job, and she clearly lacks those intangible skills that the divorced, degree-less mother has. The classroom can teach many things, but it ain't the real world. Skill-oriented classes like accounting and management don't necessarily teach someone how to deal with life in all its messiness any more than reading Hegel does. We used to draw a distinction between actual experience and book knowledge, and we used to laugh at people who thought that book knowledge was a substitute for learning by doing. OK, some of that could be chalked up to American anti-intellectualism, but there's such a thing as too much intellectualism, and privileging book and classroom knowledge to the extent we now do often violates common sense.

Even more disturbing is that universal higher education is clothed in the
rhetoric of democracy. Universal higher education is said to open doors, but
in reality, it narrows our options and leaves us with less freedom to chart
our lives and careers. That's because universal higher education is
actually mandatory higher education. Democracy is about choice, but the trend
toward universal higher education has become perversely coercive. It's one
thing to insist that children have a certain amount of education, but to
require adults to attend college or face dire economic consequences flies in
the face of individual choice. What if someone just doesn't want to attend
college? What if they believe that their skills and education are better
served by volunteering for the National Park Service and learning about
wildlife by living in the wild? Why should they have to go and study the
microbiology of plants in a classroom setting when they'll probably decide to
learn such things as their lives and careers advance?

But for now, people don't have that choice, or at least exercising that
choice comes with, as some government commission might say, high social
negatives. It's now presumed that someone without a college degree is stupid,
because it's now so easy to go to college that only the dim, dense and
unmotivated are thought to steer clear of it. And so, millions of people end
up going to college not because they want to, not because they're interested
in liberal arts (and by the way, given the jargon-filled academic culture
today, a love of literature is not always well-served by taking an English
course) and not because they have either the time, money or inclination, but simply because they must. It's as if we've decided to charge every American a tax of tens of thousands of dollars and years of time in order to join the club of the gainfully employed.

It goes without question that higher education can be a wonderful experience; it even occasionally matches the romantic notions we have of it. But for most of the 15 million students at the 3,500 institutions of higher learning, college is an anarchic place. The requirements for a degree are confusing, and no one takes the time to explain why you need to take the courses you have to take. A surprisingly high percentage of students emerge from the classroom convinced that the whole thing is a waste of time and money that could have been better spent.

We seem to have forgotten that classroom learning is only one form of
knowledge, and for millions of us, not knowledge that is particularly desirable, much less necessary. As it stands, we're on the verge of consigning ourselves to mandatory higher education. Before we reach the point of no return, we should remember that universal higher education is a development that began after World War II, and is only now becoming a reality. The vast majority of our parents and grandparents, many of whom we admire for their wisdom, intelligence and business acumen, didn't go to college. Now, given the current ethos, either they were stupid ... or we are.

By Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

MORE FROM Zachary Karabell

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Academia Books College