Lately, there's been a lot of talk (recession-driven in large part) about the real value of a college education, both in the media and that I've been privy to in my own circles. The youth unemployment rate hovers at 17% and even as the economy recovers, the specter of long-term effects on those who launch their careers during the downturn looms. With college and university commencements currently taking place all over North America, it seems like a perfect time to ask whether or not we should be encouraging so many HS students to enroll in college vs. pursuing technical or vocational training and whether a college education is really the ticket to future economic stability that it is portrayed to be.
I can empathize with students who hold graduate degrees and, due to a lack of options in their field, are returning to community college for more practical programs as a last-ditch effort to break into the workforce in a meaningful way or those from the class of 2010 who have done what they believed to be everything right (good grades, internship experience, volunteering, networking, assumption of big-time student loans) and whose introductions to the working world (which ain't exactly embracing them with open arms) will serve as a cold wake-up call.
Photo by Lou FCD
But, but... there is something to the tenor of these discussions about whether college is really worth the time and money that doesn't sit right. There are unstated assumptions underlying our collective ideas about post-secondary education that need to be explored and dimensions of privilege that profoundly shape (and underpin) these discussion that need to be acknowledged. The following are three of the numerous questions that will have to be unpacked and addressed if we're serious about evaluating (and perhaps recasting?) the role of higher education in our society:
How do we define the purpose of post-secondary education?
Is the emphasis on training the labor force of tomorrow and providing students with the skills and knowledge to acquire and hold white-collar jobs? Is the emphasis on exposing students to a breadth and depth of knowledge on the ideas, theories and precepts that shape major fields of endeavor while also socializing them into a certain pattern of analytical inquiry and offering them opportunities to develop peer relationships and networks, without an explicit linkage to increasing employability? Is it something else entirely? What about its role as a signaling credential/proxy, wherein possessing a college degree stands in for a host of other traits that are implicitly attributed to the individual in question and serve as a minimum requirement that hiring managers can use to screen applicants (even if the job duties themselves don't require that level of education to be carried out)?
What qualities are most important in a citizenry? How are these qualities linked to educational attainment?
At a macro level, it's tempting to frame the question of whether we should emphasis vocational training or liberal arts education in terms of what's more important to a society–a skilled, employed citizenry whose members aren't bogged down with debt and fretting about career prospects, but who may lack a familiarity with classic literature and the tools to create and articulate a strong rhetorical argument; or a citizenry with an expansive, nuanced worldview and passing familiarity with the major theories and works that have shaped history, but with a murky job outlook and a lack of hard skills–but that ultimately proves to be a straw man argument and one with a distinct intellectual bias. Certainly not everyone who doesn't pursue traditional higher ed is anti-intellectual and among those who do, there are more than enough narrow-minded mouthbreathers to disprove the idea that education is automatically correlated to erudition or enlightenment. The idea of encouraging, from a young age, a society-wide culture of self-driven, life-long learning and curiosity (regardless of one's level of formal educational attainment) needs to get more play. We've gotten so used to the idea of expecting an external pay-off (grades, salary, degree, career advancement) for undertaking knowledge-building activities that inculcating the idea of curiosity for its own sake and as a means of simply opening our minds and introducing us to new and exciting information just for kicks will require one helluva a marketing sell job.
Will an emphasis on technical training further social stratification/fragmentation?
Not everyone who goes to college is suited for the nature of the experience (whether because of a genuine personality mismatch or simply not being conditioned to see themselves as "college material" from a young age) and benefits from it in a manner commensurate with the tuition they're paying to be there. Not everyone who would benefit from the collegiate experience has the opportunity to partake (for financial reasons, family obligations, lack of appropriate educational background, lack of encouragement, never having been socialized to view post-secondary education as a viable or relevant choice). And not everyone who enrolls in college completes their degree; in fact, only 58 percent of students graduate within six years with their bachelor's degree.
And yet, framing the idea of vocational training and apprenticeships as lower-cost option, a fast-track to the workforce and/or more suitable for those who are uninterested or not academically-suited for a traditional college experience is problematic, especially if the attainment of a college degree is still held up as a status symbol/proxy for a certain level of analytical/critical thinking skills and a widespread prerequisite for entry-level positions in Corporate America. It brings about the possibility of a very uncomfortable scenario in which we urge lower-income folks onto technical training paths with the promise of job security (the world will always need plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc.), but still reserve participation/enfranchisement in the public discourse for those with a college (and beyond) education. Those without the same frame of reference (in terms of experience and knowledge base) get frozen out and the language and symbols of a collegiate background function as some sort of secret handshake for the economic-cum-intellectual elite (yes, this absolutely exists now, but I'm talking about an even greater level of exclusivity).
Make no mistake, folks with the means to do so will still be pursuing post-secondary education whether they're invested in the process or not, because graduating from an Ivy League school has social/political/industry cachet and allows you entree into a rarefied network of alumni and influence-makers. While post-secondary education is absolutely a privilege in our society, the barriers to entry are still such that if you turn in a decent high school performance and are willing/able to assume ten of thousands of dollars of debt load, you too can open the door to an ivory tower somewhere.
Something about the idea of discouraging youth from choosing a college education on economic grounds or because of a lack of job prospects at the end of the process or because their life experience hasn't included the foundation that would support the pursuit of higher ed, while simultaneously, at a societal level, still fetishizing the attainment of advanced credentials and considering them to be the calling cards of the position of power and authority just rubs me the very wrongest of ways.