When I attended high school and college in the late 1940s and early 1950s, everybody I knew took it for granted that anybody who was willing to work could get a job of some kind, anybody with a high school diploma could get a decent job and anybody with a college diploma, even in liberal arts, could get a somewhat better job. This probably was less true for women and for black people than it was for people like me, but it was a time of advancing prosperity for everyone.
Nowadays young people are told that it is impossible to get a decent job without a degree beyond high school. Consequently many people are crowding into college not out of a desire for learning, but simply to get the credential that will enable them to have a decent income. We no longer have state universities that provide an affordable education for anybody who is capable of doing college work. So unless you’re rich, you have to go deeply into debt to get that education. But since young people are going to college merely to get a credential, it is not necessary for the college to actually teach them anything. A college administration that follows the corporate model need only figure out the best balance between maximizing tuition and maximizing enrollment.
From what I hear from my friends in the academic world, more and more colleges are following the corporate model. State colleges and universities are transforming themselves from public colleges to tax-supported private colleges, with the same goal of maximizing revenue. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. Not all colleges follow the corporate model. There are still excellent teachers in colleges whose administrations are trying to force this model. But this is the way the tide is flowing.
Ex-Senator Rick Santorum has said that college is not for anybody. He said that many people can do better by getting a job and improving their skills through on-the-job training. There was a time when this was true, but it is not true today.
He is quite right to say that you don’t have to go to college to be educated. Years ago I read a great book, The Precious Gift by a man named Cornelius Hirschberg, who never went to college but gave himself a better liberal education than most people have simply by reading classic works on the New York City subway while going to and from work. The book is out of print, but probably is available at a good public library.
What Senator Santorum said about the advantages of getting a hands-on education by entering the world of work would have been reasonable when I was growing up, and probably was valid when he was growing up. You could become an apprentice in a skilled trade, such as machinist, and work up to a good wage as a journeyman. To some extent, this is still possible. But fewer and fewer companies provide such training. It is worthwhile only if there is a stable work force, and the employer can count on the employee to hang around long enough to provide a return on the investment in human capital.
I think the answer One thing we need is a rebirth of public higher education – affordable community colleges to provide training in work skills, affordable state colleges to provide college-level education. But that would mean a change in the whole way we have come to think about things. We would have to start thinking there is such a thing as the common good, and not merely individuals with no higher aim than to get competitive advantage over each other.
[Update] Click on Manufacturing Generation Me for a perspective on the “millennial” generation, the Americans born in 1982 or later. The writer said that many of the characteristics taken for narcissism, such as trying to make yourself a “brand” or being preoccupied with career success and monetary rewards, are merely what young Americans nowadays have to do to survive. Hat tip to Kmareka.com.
[Afterthought] I emphasized the wrong thing by ending the post with a comment on the need to restore affordable public higher education. The larger problem is the combination of a precarious economy, credentialism and the corporate model of education. Without the fear generated by an uncertain economic future, credentialism would lose its power, and young people would have the freedom to seek out what they’re best suited for.