I teach part time at UC Berkeley, and my classes are my favorite part of the week. So when I learned that the White House is proposing a program called “America’s College Promise,” where students could go tuition free for two years to community college, I was delighted. But I have to question the reasons behind this important program, which have to do with earning power.
The Pew Research Center has published a study showing the effect of a college education on salary. Their research shows that the median income for full time workers, ages 25-32, with a bachelor’s degree or higher is $45,500; with a two year degree or some college, $30,000; and for high school graduates, $28,000. Millenials with only a high school education are four times more likely to be unemployed than their college educated counterparts, and far more likely to be living in poverty (21.8% of millenials with a high school diploma live at or below the poverty line, compared to 5.8% of college graduates.) www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/sdt-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-01/)
Since having a bachelor’s degree seems to make a great deal of difference in the financial quality of your life, it seems logical that getting as many young people into colleges and universities makes sense. A college degree is a commodity and a person who has one becomes more valuable than someone who does not.
From a commons point of view, there are three things wrong with this frame:
1) People should go to college because they want to learn things that can be learned there. Making a BA a ticket to higher pay means also that some majors (i.e. Business, Engineering) will be worth more than others (i.e. History, Comparative Literature). Many universities embrace this, requiring each major to be its own cost center which means that unless enough students major in that subject, it will not be taught. I majored in Religion and Classics—two areas of study no longer available at the college I attended because they didn’t generate enough money. Making a college degree a commodity undermines the very function of a higher education which, to paraphrase John Henry Newman, is to impart the tools to live a principled, significant and meaningful life and thereby to ultimately and collectively improve our society. A broad general education cultivates respect for the variety of different disciplinary approaches to the same questions.
Simply speaking, we don’t want everyone majoring in hammers and seeing every problem as a nail.
2) There are hundreds of thousands of necessary jobs that do not require a college education, and the people that work in these jobs are often paid very poorly. Further, there are many technical and vocational careers that require training and lead to certification that are not available from a college or university. To maintain the commons, someone has to clean the public bathrooms and someone has to sweep the streets. To maintain infrastructure, both private and public, someone has to understand plumbing and electricity. Contractors, roofers, gardeners, janitors, clerks, waiters, housekeepers: this is all work that has to get done and someone is going to have to do it.
The United States has fetishized a college degree as the path out of poverty and trained a generation of young people to go to college no matter the cost, the debt, or even the desire. This will not provide a path out of poverty for all college graduates and it avoids the question of guaranteeing adequate compensation for other kinds of work.
3) Not everyone wants to go to college. Some of my students have confided in me that they don’t want to be in college. One said he wanted to be a plumber but he was the first in his immigrant family to be able to go to college and so he felt he had to. Another said she liked the freedom of being a waitress and being able to pursue her art that way, but her parents did not see this as a legitimate choice.
What I would rather see as America’s Promise is this: anyone should be able to go to college who wants to and all young people should be encouraged to do so. However income should not be based on education. People should be able to make good money, with good benefits by doing work that needs to get done whether it requires a college education or not, (a lesson unions taught us years ago) and respect should be accorded to everyone who works to maintain, restore or improve our collective commons and our quality of life.