The College Identity Crisis

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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

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
. 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
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

the reality is too many students are not prepared across our country. Too many
leave school without the skills they need to get a job that pays. […] The
quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. And America
has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree. We
used to be number one, and we’re now number nine. That’s not acceptable.

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
to public universities competitive, along the lines of Race to the

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
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
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
, Time,
, American
, FAIR, Boston
, Huffington
, Bureau of
Labor Statistics
, New
York Times
, U.S.
, Martin
Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute

Image by The Cleveland Kid, licensed under Creative Commons.

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