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The College Identity Crisis

Ivory Tower

Going to college is getting complicated. With higher ed becoming both more essential and less of a guarantee of future success, many young people today face a kind of impossible choice. At the same time, for many kids higher education has become an expectation, a social obligation, less an accomplishment than a prerequisite to something more difficult and less certain. It’s also becoming much less attainable.

It wasn’t always like this. For generations, college offered a romanticized leap into the middle class—practically a guarantee of future prosperity, or at least, a good chance of avoiding the job market’s worst pitfalls. All through American history, it’s impossible to separate education from the idea of social mobility, and by extension, the possibility of equality. Access to higher education formed a big part of the early women’s rights movement, and later, antislavery and civil rights. Federal aid to education was at the center of Washington’s desegregation effort under the Johnson and Nixon administrations. From a student’s perspective, higher education can instill self-direction and lifelong learning, and can teach us to discover new ideas in a collaborative, community-based way.

But more recently, when people talk about education in America, they mostly talk about crisis. And not just the student debt crisis that movements like Occupy recently propelled into the national consciousness. And not just the crisis in higher education that’s impoverishing instructors and grad students and underfunding the liberal arts. The other crisis—the one that’s been at the center of our education policy for two administrations—is about competitiveness. It’s this idea that has spurred the Gates Foundation to pump hundreds of millions into struggling schools. It’s also the subject of a popular and fascinating 2010 documentary (Waiting for “Superman) on why schools must address changes in the global economy.

We’ve all heard the argument. Students in Europe and Asia are outperforming Americans on standardized tests, especially in math and science. We have lower graduation rates than other countries (college and high school), and those that do graduate don’t study the right things. On average, class sizes have gone down and education spending has gone up since the 1960s, and we’re still at the back of the rich country pack. And this is an information age, with an information-based global marketplace, and we’d better be ready to compete with the tech schools in China that are churning out millions of engineers a year. The U.S. job market is still hurting, but the real growth areas will be in—you guessed it—math and science. We need more chemical engineers now than novelists. More computer technicians than historians.

Beyond the anti-union rhetoric and reductive view of social inequality that usually comes out of a discussion like this, it’s a really interesting argument. After World War II, higher education was available to more people than ever before through programs like the GI bill. That availability reshaped the American economy, supporting a large middle class and low inequality. But today, the prevailing wisdom is that schools must “provide an education that is relevant to the needs of business,” in the words of Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation has become a major player in the ongoing debate. So rather than take an active role in creating the society of the future, schools should instead react to whatever incentives and deterrents already exist in the global marketplace. Moreover, they should tailor the student experience to the future requirements of private enterprise. “Computer science employment is growing by nearly 100,000 jobs annually,” Gates wrote in 2007. “But at the same time studies show that there is a dramatic decline in the number of students graduating with computer science degrees.” The key to our America’s future prosperity, Gates says, is to correct this imbalance.

And that’s just what the Gates Foundation has been up to for the past decade, says the American Prospect. While most states and districts have recently been cutting back on education spending, organizations like Gates, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have swooped in with fast cash in reward for their vision of education reform. Mostly that means charters, standardized tests, and lots of math and science. It also means quantifying student and teacher performance, using cash to reward success and punish failure, and battling with teachers unions.

It’s that vision that has also been at the center of federal reforms like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which have formed the core of our education policy for the past decade. Like Gates’ contributions, both programs rely on public-private partnerships, and use financial aid as an incentive for cash-strapped states and districts to dramatically change policy. Borrowing a line from the Gates playbook, Obama said in a speech last year that,

The Obama administration’s reaction to these problems reflects the idea that public education is inherently competitive, that its success is quantifiable, and that these kinds of reforms should be a comprehensive, national project. Earlier this year, Obama announced that he would soon make federal money to public universities competitive, along the lines of Race to the Top.

From a student’s perspective, the underlying assumption is that the most important thing a college education can give you is a job. At the same time, getting that job is a social good in itself. Now, to a liberal arts major, this all sounds a little funny—and not just because of the “getting a job” part. It’s because higher ed can mean so much more than that. For a lot of people, it’s more about how to ask questions, how to accept paradox, how to express complex ideas, where to go for specialized information. It’s about the value of collaboration and discussion, and pushing yourself to your intellectual and creative limits. It’s about tackling questions that maybe you’ve never considered before. Talking about job prospects almost confuses the matter.

I know. It’s a pretty privileged viewpoint. Most people don’t have the luxury of enjoying education for education’s sake. Like it or not, the job market is crazy-competitive, and it’s starry-eyed lib arts majors that end up serving lattes. But you could say the same thing about the Gates argument. The innovation of the future may be based on math and science, but it’s hard to believe that that’s where most of the jobs will be. 100,000 new jobs a year is a lot for one industry, but retail salespersons and cashiers are still the biggest jobs in the U.S. right now, and will be for some time. The service economy, growing for decades, now represents more than three-fourths of our GDP. And while information technology was one of the few industries to actually create jobs during the economic downturn, its growth was outpaced by other sectors like hospitality (engineers weren’t so lucky—that industry shed jobs). On top of that, the unemployment rate for recent engineering grads is relatively low, but it’s also higher than kids who studied education, agriculture, and (amazingly) communications. Among those who’ve found work, the median income for an experienced engineering major is $81,000—much higher than other college grads ($51,000) and the country as a whole ($30,000). Like it or not, the kinds of high-paying information-economy jobs reformers like Gates talk about will always be relatively elite—whether or not more kids major in math and science.

If we wanted an education system really based on the needs of business, then we should own up to the fact that a 30 percent college graduation rate is much too high. Millions of college grads end up not using their degrees in any direct way, and some even struggle with being “overqualified” for the jobs that are available. But it’s easy to see how that misses the point. Reducing something like learning or personal achievement to an economic measure only makes sense if you’re talking about vocational schools or job training, and even then it seems impossibly narrow. In 1947, a young Martin Luther King wrote that while education can foster intelligence and help prepare students for successful careers, it should also do much more. “The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate,” he argued. “The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.” College may no longer guarantee a good job, but it can still guarantee a wider social lens, and a better understanding of the complex world around us.  

In a lot of ways, this idea of education seems obvious, but it’s also easy to ignore. The most serious problem facing public education today is probably this deep identity crisis. Should public schools and universities work to instill obedience, patriotism, and routine in future low-wage workers, as they did during the industrial revolution? Should they instead serve as social levelers, weeding out segregation and inequality, as New Deal liberals like Johnson and, yes, Nixon believed? Or should they appeal to the privileged few math and science students that will later become entrepreneurs and engineers in the new information economy, as current reformers argue? This question about the purpose of public education underlies much of the current debate, even if it’s not explicitly hammered out.

The fact is that it’s easy to say everyone should go to college, but the barriers to making that a reality are not going away any time soon. Failing universal (free) college, we should remember that, while valuable, higher ed doesn’t have a monopoly on higher learning. There are plenty of people that are able to achieve the same kind of self-direction, and can challenge themselves and their communities in the same vigorous ways, without ever attending a lecture. There are quite a few brilliant and successful people who either dropped out of college or didn’t bother going. But for the rest of us, both as community members and individuals, the college experience is invaluable. For those of us facing a tough job market, here’s the good news: the social good isn’t getting the job, it’s getting the education.

Sources: The Nation, Time, Washington Post, American Prospect, FAIR, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Bureau of Labor Statistics, New York Times, U.S. Census, Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.  

Image by The Cleveland Kid, licensed under Creative Commons.