On the face of it, the promises being made by most of the current presidential hopefuls of free college for everybody seems charitable. Not necessarily wise, perhaps, but generous nonetheless. For it to be plausible, it needs a lot of thought and revision.
The current burden of student loans seems a nearly impossible hurdle for students with baccalaureate degrees who can only find work at McDonald’s or its equally low-paying competitors. (How the college loan situation got so out of hand needs to be addressed, its inequities corrected.) Those with Master’s Degrees and Doctorates seem either to be training more college grads to become hamburger flippers or delivering meals for DoorDash for commissions and tips. In my day, PhDs drove cabs, which have been displaced in recent years by unmarked cabs called Ubers.
See how far we’ve come?
There is due cause for concern that by footing the bill for college we will create an even larger workforce for fast food franchises and other various branches of the service industry. While it may be admirable to have highly educated workers, the effort might be wasted on those students not opting for careers in the hard sciences or technology, for which there is currently a great demand.
The scramble for degree programs in social sciences and the arts is basically over; in some places, certain disciplines are even being phased out of existence as funding dries up for liberal arts programs.
What’s at the root of the problem are the politicians’ all-inclusive promises.
“Everybody goes to college for free,” seems like an accident waiting to happen. (There is significant evidence provided from the fallout of the GI Bill of Rights following the Second World War. Many returning vets who weren’t capable of attaining a higher education, made the attempt because the program was free; the opposite may also be true, however, in that many a capable person without funding could attain academic success.)
As hard as it is for many a parent to admit is the fact that not all high school grads are college material. While they might be motivated to fully enjoy Thursday nights chugging pitchers of cheap beer and the early morning hours praying to the porcelain prince in preparation for a weekend of non-stop partying, they might not be prepared to comprehend James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, spend long hours problem-solving in the chemistry lab, or sleepless nights grappling with the notion of philosophical realism.
As they should, a lot of parents have really high hopes for Dick and Jane’s future. Many of those parents, however, are too invested with their own dreams for their offspring. Many of those dreams were once the parents’—now being passed along in the hopes of fruition on somebody’s part.
I knew a man once who had a son who was going to be a professional baseball player. The kid didn’t know about such plans but that didn’t seem to deter Pops. At the time, the kid was in the first grade and couldn’t quite grasp the notion of base running. When he fielded ground balls, he seemed to be a living imitation of a croquet wicket. He didn’t really even like baseball, but Junior was MLB bound because that was what Senior wanted—a dream deferred by one generation.
Senior didn’t get his wish and he might be somewhat disappointed now that Junior is succeeding as a research chemist rather than as a shortstop.
Other parents are so results-oriented in thinking of their kids’ futures that they have no regard for simple realities. For instance, precious little Johnny has all the brain power of an over-ripe turnip and his parents don’t have enough money to donate a wing of the new law building at Yale to guarantee both admission and a degree. Clearly, Johnny’s future is not on Wall Street, but in politics.
It is both ludicrous and unbecoming that society places values on what it is that people do rather than who they are. That in itself may well lead to unhappiness in the workplace.
On my first trip to Ireland, Geri instructed me to never ask what a person did for a living. The Irish seem to think more of themselves than to be defined by their labors—no matter how grandiose or menial they might seem.
Seeing somebody’s real value is probably easier to do in a small town where everybody depends on everybody else doing whatever job it is they do. I think we must appreciate workers of every stripe more than allowed by the compartmentalization seen in the big cities, where people live in neighborhoods defined by income, vis a vis, their working class.
Pete Buttigieg, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is perhaps the smartest, most articulate guy to run for political office since Adlai Stevenson, the former Governor of Illinois who lost landslide bids for the Presidency to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. Mayor Pete told a wonderful story at one of the debates about an Asian woman who couldn’t qualify to teach elementary school, so she became a doctor.
One would never see that in this country. We tend to place doctors on pedestals and treat our teachers as if they were babysitters who have the nerve to whine about having to spend their own money on crayons and construction paper. Of course, doctors are on a lower pedestal than, say, a right fielder who bats .253 and makes $17 million a season.
If doctors were successful only one-quarter of the time, we’d not risk ever getting sick.
What’s missing from the free-college equation are alternatives to the four-year programs offered on campuses with a Depression-era Quad surrounded by ivy-covered buildings. When politicians say “college,” the assumption is four years of study. And when politicians say, “free,” they are failing to mention that for such a program to work, the admissions process would have to be rigorous and not everybody could be admitted.
A handful of states, Tennessee being among the first, are offering free tuition to students attending community or junior colleges and technical (trade) schools. The results in that red state include a higher high school graduation rate which is indicative of that program’s motivating participation.
Why politicians on the campaign trail don’t generally speak of associate degrees and trade-school diplomas is anybody’s guess. Maybe careers that don’t take place at a big desk in a corner office and involve a lot of paper-shuffling aren’t very sexy. That attitude results in subliminal job-shaming. But the reality is that as a society we need men and women who pursue vocational careers as much, if not more perhaps, than we need traditional college graduates—many of whom choose working in the trades anyway. (There are no shortages of English lit majors swinging hammers, sociology majors toiling in small-engine repair, anthropologists creating desserts in three-star restaurants, CPAs raising goats to make organic chevre.)
While every job is clearly important, it is likely that on any given day an individual will need the services of a mechanic, plumber or electrician more than those offered by a psychotherapist.
The point is that most of us realize our limitations at an early stage of life and act accordingly. For instance, I once dreamed of being an astronaut. When I realized that I had little aptitude for science, suffered from claustrophobia, and was terrified of both heights and flying, I abandoned that dream for one of becoming a professional basketball player. I wasn’t particularly well suited for that, either.
A major consideration in all of this is to determine the satisfaction and pleasure one gets from work and build on that without regard to social status.
Community colleges should be restructured to provide a core curriculum of liberal arts study that is a requisite for any academic major and mandate that those institutions be attended before a transfer to another college for degree study.
Technical schools should also have programs that include basic extensions of high school study in the liberal arts, with emphases on communications, finance and business management.
And rather than looking to increased tax revenues to finance the free-college plan, let’s get rid of athletic scholarships—a misnomer if ever there was one—and the let the NFL, the NHL and the NBA pay for what in all reality are their farm systems.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska