Higher Education for Everyone
Is higher education for everyone?
This prompt is a follow-on to the post on the value of higher education.
In my previous response, I wanted to separate the idea of “higher education” from the image of formal schooling, arguing that one does not necessarily have to go to college to get a higher education if they have a posture as a life-long learner and the critical thinking skills to teach themselves and learn from others. That being argued, I will now turn to a further response to my colleague’s response, where I wondered if we were merely engaging in an upper-middle class debate.
Here in the States, formal schooling beyond high school is often impossible due to the financial constraints. As my co-writer Aurelius made clear, the cost of college is both unreasonable and unsustainable. Government programs provide need-based financial aid, but as the overall cost continues to rise, even that becomes unsustainable. Fortunately, in a capitalist market like this one, the price ought to find some sort of equilibrium because, as you pointed out, lower-cost service delivery models will enter the market because of the potential for massive profits. This increased competition, when businesses realize that most people are barely using their college degrees at work anyways, will encourage more people to use low-cost online programs.
Regardless of the definite cost of college, the opportunity cost is still great. People who go to college defer their potential earnings for at least 3 years, something that sometimes neither they nor their families can afford. Lower-income families need the earnings immediately and can’t wait. Around the world, in impoverished areas, this hidden cost often makes even going the full first 12 years of formal education impossible. I have met people who were my age and starting high school because they could never do it before then, and teenagers who were in 1st and 2nd grade because their distractions from school were so great.
In this type of world, is higher education (formal schooling) for everyone? Well, it would seem that it’s not simply because it’s not realistic. On the other hand, although I argue in my former post that higher education goes far beyond formal schooling, it still seems apparent that a certain level of formal education is beyond beneficial to the point of being nearly necessary. A plumber with only an 8th grade education may become a great plumber, but he may be trapped in a one-track life with few options beyond crawling under people’s sinks until he’s in his mid-70s. And, can he balance his family’s budget, encourage his kids to read books he has never heard of, or be an informed voter?
I believe that society has an obligation to all people to provide them with a meaningful, practical, critical-thinking, and broadening education in their first 12 years of required formal schooling. I believe that society ought to find ways of ensuring that all people can attain these 12 years. Our society is falling pretty short in both of these areas right now, but I believe we can and should improve. If we can do those things, higher education will not be necessary for all people, because those with only a high school diploma will be able to have a good quality of life.
Response from Aurelius
I really like your approach to this discussion. The bigger picture boils down to opportunity cost, which you do a great job explaining. Those below the middle of the middle class often cannot defer earnings for the time it takes to complete a degree, a point I failed to mention.
While it was possible as recently as 2-3 decades ago to work through college and graduate debt free, that is now a long shot at best. Since 1980, tuition has risen dramatically faster than inflation while minimum wage has stayed flat, under $8/hour in 2012 dollars. My grandfather worked in the summers to pay for college. Today, a summer job will pay for roughly half a semester. Part-time work during semesters does not add enough to make up for the difference. It’s just not doable anymore.
As you say, we will reach an equilibrium as we are destined to do under our capitalistic framework. However, we don’t see signs of slowing, which is worrisome. Regardless of what happens to higher education, I agree with you that it is a society’s obligation to provide 12 years of quality education to all of its citizens. I’d like to see higher education affordable for all as well.
Your last paragraph could be a stirring political speech. Are you sure you don’t want to enter politics? A political life sounds awful, but I’d vote for you after that speech.
Higher education is not for everyone, but it is valuable for most people in developed nations, particularly the U.S, most European countries, and many Asian countries. While in a preceding post I argued for the generally high value of higher education, not all higher education is created equal. I can see four primary situations when higher education is not worth it.
Some degrees are not adequately employable or they offer the same or only little more than what a high school diploma grants. Students should know ahead of time what their career options are with certain degrees. Somehow career options aren’t common knowledge, but once they are then it’s simply the student’s risk to pursue a degree that is hard to employ. Some universities as well, typically for-profit universities, similarly will not grant graduates increased opportunities even though they will be in tremendous debt for years or even decades. I would highly discourage pursuing a higher education from a university with a poor reputation.
In addition to a low-value degree or a disreputable university, the third situation would be if the high school graduate would simply be better off bypassing higher education. For instance, some individuals know before graduating high school that they would like to pursue a career in the military immediately upon graduating. While college graduates can enter the military as an officer, there are many positions in the military that do not require a higher education, and there are military programs that will even pay for the individual to obtain a university degree during or after service depending on the job function. Besides the military, higher education is not necessarily a good fit for those wanting to go into their family business or become a trade worker. There are other training and certification routes available for those paths that are shorter and cheaper than a traditional higher education.
Higher education is also not a good fit for those that don’t excel academically, which is by some measures the majority of high school graduates. If you don’t do well in high school, there’s a good chance you won’t finish college within 4-6 years if you go straight into college, leaving you burdened with debt and no degree. If you want or need a college degree, however, start off at community college to build your study habits before enrolling in a degree program. Minimize risk in order to maximize returns. Otherwise, pursue alternative training and certification routes as mentioned above. This will give an employability and opportunity edge over high school graduates with no such skills.
So, no, higher education is not for everyone. But, if you are in a developed nation and have the opportunity, you should strongly consider it. With a valued degree from a reputable university, your career options will flourish, and the university experience is valuable in many other ways as detailed in the previous post.
Response from Antipas
You’re spot on. While some have the leisure to take undergraduate degree programs that lead nowhere just for their own sake, most do not. What’s happening here, a point we’re dancing around, is the continuum that exists between an esoteric “higher education” that encourages human development and the very practical training directly for employment. Finding this balance is hard and rarely achieved.
For example, there is some debate among seminaries in the training of pastors. Many seminaries require their graduates to be reasonably proficient in Greek and Hebrew. This has almost no practical use for pastors, as almost none of them will ever refer back to it. Nearly any pastor can find nearly anything they need from the original Biblical languages in books that other people have written.
Thus, we find a balancing point that everyone needs to draw for themselves. When I was in college, I had the leisure to take a variety of classes for pure interest while also graduating with a valuable business degree. Other people may need to focus in and only take the bare essentials of what they need, spending most of their time in job fairs and interviews. Still others may skip it altogether, going to a technical college. Our primary & secondary education systems ought to help people draw this balance themselves.
And one last note – if I actually thought that people would vote for me with my straightforward, no-BS, and often “radical” viewpoints, I’d be more than happy to enter politics! Unfortunately, I would be enough of a realist to know that even if I got elected, my colleagues would probably hate my style.