The “Sacred” Right to College

One of the cries of the left, not just the far left, unfortunately, has been a clamor for “free” college educations and even a forgiving of college-incurred debt. As someone who has raised college-educated offspring, who has taught on the collegiate level, and who is married to a university professor, I’m strongly opposed to both.

Why?

Because it would not only be a tremendous waste of money and resources, but because it would be absolutely the wrong thing to do. Obviously, I believe that a college education is valuable, but it’s not valuable to everyone. I also believe that while a college education should not be a blanket right, it should not be denied to anyone on the basis of race, color, creed, or economic background.

Unhappily, far too many incoming college students are not only lacking in basic skills, but also don’t know how to work intellectually, don’t want to do the hard work necessary to learn higher level skills, and don’t seem to want to learn anything that doesn’t interest them. But university administrations seem determined to increase their numbers, rather than to increase the quality of the education provided. Rather than flunking out the uninterested and the lazy, the pressure mounts on faculty, especially at public institutions, to provide watered-down “edutainment.”

This emphasis deprives the better and more motivated students of the best education that they could have while saddling those merely “processed” through the system with debts that they cannot pay and a pricey and close to useless “credential.” The result of doing this for the last fifty years has been degree inflation, so that additional education at additional cost is required in many fields as more of a “screening tool” than for work-related requirements.

Now, a college degree has become the panacea for economic inequality and the optimal way to assure a “better” life for one’s children. For the fortunate, highly intelligent, and well-connected, it usually is, but not always. Given the skyrocketing cost of higher education, and the even higher cost of graduate degrees such as law and medicine, the inexorable result is that as many as half of those graduates are so burdened by debt that they can barely make ends meet… and that’s without house payments or the cost of having children.

The political reaction is to forgive all that debt. Unfortunately, that will ensure the continuation of creating more graduates who cannot find jobs in their field of study. It will also increase the federal debt, which is fast reaching unsustainable levels, unless taxes are increased. While those on the left claim that higher real incomes of those graduates will contribute to higher tax revenues, that assumption rests on such jobs being continually created… and that’s highly unlikely.

As I’ve noted previously, the United States is producing roughly twice as many college graduates annually as there are jobs for them. The scientist and historian Peter Turchin terms this the “overproduction of elites” and has pointed out that such “overproduction” over history has always led to severe societal unrest, if not worse, as in the case of the French and Russian revolutions, because, in time, a significant number of those who view themselves as elites but who do not get elite jobs and income reject the “system” and enlist the help of the economically disenfranchised to attack the elites. In a sense, that was the whole message of the Trump presidency, beginning with Trump himself, who has always felt that the “elite of the elites” minimized him.

Over time, college can’t be for everyone. The question that needs to be asked isn’t how everyone can go to college, but who should attend, and for what reason, because assuming that everyone can and should go is an expensive proposition that isn’t working and that will become more unworkable every year.

14 thoughts on “The “Sacred” Right to College”

  1. Sandie says:

    As a Canadian, I am not sure how the words college and university are used and differentiated in the US. In my limited experience, having two university educated sons and one college educated son, husband a retired university professor and myself a college equivalent, I see, here anyway, that university is becoming less an academic directed stream (and possibly shouldn’t) and college is and continues to be more a practical job directed stream. I do agree with you that too many students are seeking university degrees when they are much better suited to a college program and the resulting job/profession. Our college educated son is no less smart than his university educated brothers, just his skills and inclinations were and are more served by the direction he chose. I believe if there were to be more encouragement for this option it would be a better choice for many.

    1. Shannon says:

      In the US, the terms college and university tend to be used interchangeably in casual conversation to refer to an institution that provides a bachelor’s degree. An institution that provides and associates degree is usually referred to as a junior college or community college. An institution that provides a trade qualification is a trade school, though community colleges and junior colleges can also provide trade qualifications. College can also refer to an institution that provides a bachelor’s degree but tends to focus on a narrow range of academics. College can also be a unit within a university. It’s all very confusing if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology and context.

  2. Ron Maurer says:

    The theory that they same to work off of is that all the good paying jobs go to college graduates, so the solution to economic inequality is to get everyone a college degree. This ignores basic economic principles. Since it has not, increased the number of high paying jobs (with one exception), while increasing the number of people who qualify, what it has done is driven down the pay for basic college graduate positions.

    The one exception is in higher education. Since everyone has to go to college, we have seen a huge increase in higher ed enrollment, which means a huge increase in faculty. In 1940, 3.8% of women and 5.5.% of the men in the US had a college degree. As of 2019, the percentage was at over 35% for both. Are there jobs for all those with degrees that required those degrees?

    1. What’s happened in higher education is that the percentage number of full-time tenure track positions has been roughly halved over the last fifty years from around two thirds to roughly one third, while the number of degreed but underpaid part-time adjuncts has skyrocketed, and while the adjuncts “hourly” rates, based on credit hours taught, not actual hours worked, are theoretically well above minimum wage, their hours teaching at any one college are capped so that they’re not eligible for benefits and the allowable pay from any on institution is below the poverty level. And, as is the case here, if there’s only one university in town, as is the case here, and the only other one is fifty miles away, even assuming a position there is available, it’s still a huge struggle.

  3. Rosemarie says:

    When I was college-aged, it was a given that you needed a college degree to get a good job. My degrees have served me well and I enjoyed getting them.

    Now that my grandsons are college-aged, this no longer seems to be the case and they have chosen to get “trades” that will be in demand, studying welding, for example. They will have minimal debt, if any, when they finish trade school and will have work that they can pursue wherever they eventually choose to live.

    When my parents were school-aged, high school was not for every one and the town we lived in had two high schools: one provided a “business” (or college-preparatory) education, the other “vo-tech” high school provided vocational and technical training for those who were not planning on further education. Graduates of either high school had the skills to support themselves.

    As long as our “lower” schools continue to turn out students who are unprepared for the work force, some form of further education will be required. But college for everyone as has been pointed out above is not a viable solution.

  4. Tom says:

    My take.

    We have children completing grade school and high school unprepared to become young adults who are willing to work to obtain what they can achieve.

    We have a population which regards individuals through a cast-based lens colored by how they earn a living rather than how well they do their job. We fail to recognize the futility of “equality” which is not practically achievable nor is it always desirable.

    The employers complain about the lack of qualified workers but they are the ones who got rid of apprenticeships because of the expense. They are also constantly forcing a turnover in their work-force by continually changing their requirements. A nation needs a variety of experts as employers and as workers. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur nor can everyone be self-employed.

    This set of deficiencies seems to be why the young are forced into “higher” education to their detriment and to the cost of the quality of our society. The set also suggests possible corrective actions.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

    1. Wine Guy says:

      I would love to disagree with this, but I cannot.

  5. Hanneke says:

    I think the skyrocketing income inequality, and ever-increasing economic uncertainty (for everyone below the top 5% or so) plays a big part in the inflated demand for college education.

    Income from wages for most jobs has been stagnant for the last forty years, while inflation has risen. So a job that a family could live on comfortably 40 years ago, now often isn’t enough without a second income to pay for a house and medical + dental care and the costs associated with having children.

    Laws and regulations have made it easy to offshore and automate a lot of jobs, which means that job security is a lot less dependable than it was (perceived to be).

    The people who have been getting significant income increases are bankers, corporate lawyers, top-level managers and executives, investors and such – to get on that ladder you need a college/university degree.

    The difference in income between the top executives and their company’s lowest-paid employees has exploded in the last 40 years, with the top 10%, 1% and 0.1% racing ahead nearly expinentially, and the lower 60% or more falling even farther behind in the buying power of their income.

    That increasing inequality and uncertainty makes it ever less attractive to take a vocational community college track to a job, as you know you’ll never be able to get ahead that way, but end up worse off than your parents, if you can keep in work at all.

    Now that tuition for universities and a lot of colleges in the US have risen to a level where they will cripple the students’ participation in the economy for decades after leaving college (who can get, or afford, a mortgage while paying off that much student loan debt, or pay for childcare and start a school fund for a kid?), that path to a reasonably affluent future is being cut off for a lot of students from less well-off backgrounds, though it’s taking years to sink in what the long-term consequences are, enough to start discouraging students from taking that path.

    It foesn’t need to be that way. Over here in Holland, university tuition varies between 1500 and 3000 per year, Germany and Belgium are broadly similar or a little bit cheaper – an amount that a regular weekend job or a summer job can take care of, if you are willing to work hard to get a debt-free start. The Scandinavian countries have done very well boosting their economies by making their universities tuition free.

    Making the rules so that the economy isn’t skewed towards taking from the poor and giving to the rich, would be a good start to addressing the imbalance in demand for college/university educations versus jobs for those with that education. If a good craftsman can make a reasonably comfortable and secure living (while working fulltime), without a fear of bankruptcy if someone in the family gets sick, and with enough room to save up for a pension to retire on with some financial security in his old age, vocational colleges can offer their students an attractive future without resorting to university degrees.
    Some publicity campaigns to get that message across may be useful.
    That, combined with universities pricing themselves out of most people’s price range, would create the shift you want.

  6. In “socialist” Sweden, higher education is free. But you must have good grades to be accepted. Approximately 10% of the applicants are admitted to the medical education. During the education, you can borrow for a living and pay off when you finish. My wife and I studied to be teachers from having been industrial workers (papermill). We were 27 when we started and 33 when we were ready and debt free when we were 45

  7. Cindy says:

    In “semi-socialist” Ireland education is free and Ireland is internationally recognised for her highly educated workforce. However, although University is free places are severely limited and competition is fierce! In order to be offered a place in University the student has to complete a set number of specific courses and achieve a minimum grade standard in each of their 6 years in secondary school. Every secondary school student who thinks that they might wish to attend college has to find out what is required for their preferred course of study and from their second year they only take classes that will help them gain the “points” they need. Points are awarded for course completion and grade achieved and each University course requires a specific number of points before a student can be considered for a place. Arts courses generally are available at lower points but students wishing to study medicine, veterinary or pharmachology need to generally achieve straight “A” in all higher subjects.

    Ireland also has a number of technical colleges that offer hand’s-on study and apprenticeship in trades.

    As a secondary teacher I encouraged my students to only consider attending college if they were fascinated so much by a subject that they wanted to learn it – not to just get a degree to get a job. University is a place to learn a subject in depth and shouldn’t be thought of as simply a way to get a good job.

  8. J Nelson says:

    Trade school should definitely be promoted as an equally respectable alternative for high school students; chosen based on their aptitude and goals. Some students are focused on college as a means of matching or exceeding the educational achievements of their forbears; and haven’t yet earned the wisdom to make the best choice for themselves.

  9. Tim says:

    Here in England two (lesser) universities have dropped their entrance grades. I did suggest to some academic friends that surely it would be quicker just to charge £30,000 in non-tuition fees and to post a 2:1 diploma by return.

    They are still friends luckily but I think it was close 🙂

  10. William F McKissack says:

    It is ironic that the next post is Scam Season. A part of the problem is that many Colleges/Universities in the US push that the only way to improve your life is a college education is to stay afloat. School loans are also a big business by themselves. There are many legitimate schools but there are a large number of for profit schools that rip the students off. They promise great jobs. The commercials are so good I was tempted by one and it was for the field I am already in (computers). They misrepresent the jobs that are available and the working conditions.

    Despite their commercials the goals of most schools is to provide an education and not just job training. I have found that people with a college degree are able to put up with a higher level of frustration to accomplish a goal than people without a degree which is very helpful in corporate America.

    Also many people benefit from the contacts they make at school both professionally and personally.

    I agree that making school free as it stands would be a mistake especially in that it would encourage students to waste the time of their scholarship. Instead different issues should be explored such as why have the number of administrative personnel risen compared to the number of educational personnel? What is the truth in advertising in the For Profit schools? Why are US Colleges the farm team for the NFL?

    There need to be alternatives to help people prepare for success other than get a load of debt. Hopefully we will get a functioning Department of Eduction soon

  11. Peter J Michaels says:

    Individual colleges determine who is admitted and who is turned down. Individuals who are admitted can borrow up to $12,500 annually to pay for college. That debt is, in most cases, not dischargeable via bankruptcy. And I’m not arguing that Federal Student Loan debt should be forgivable. But is strikes me as unreasonable that the colleges that collect and benefit from Federal Student Loans have no skin in the game. Are colleges then incentivized to admit student that are clearly unprepared to do college level work knowing that they will wash out. The unprepared student gets the debt, the college gets the money. I’d like to see colleges assume some of the risk in lending and therefore be incentivized to produce graduates that can repay the loans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.