August 24, 2011

I want to opine on two comments I read in a New York Times debate about the value of a college education:

#1 comes from Steve: 

 As a 29 year veteran High School teacher, I am surprised to read that many of your contributors are pointing to the academic/vocational alternatives offered in other countries as a solution to the issue discussed. We really need look no further than our OWN high schools back in the 1940s and 1950s. Public schools in America used to also have an academic/vocational option for students. Then, someone decided that was somehow unfair, and we began our delusional march towards silently degrading vocational work and convincing people that EVERY student, even the most developmentally disabled, was a candidate to benefit greatly from a 4 year college degree. As much of the discussion has pointed out, this is a delusion, and ,in many cases, a very expensive one.I fully agree with Mr. Trachtenberg. I often admonish my own students not o look down on vocational training—their plumbers and car mechanics will out-earn me, their teacher with two master’s degrees in our respective lifetimes. We have to , I suppose, de-condition ourselves from looking down on the artisans as somehow “failed” because they did not earn a B.A.

The other issue, however, is that we no longer make ANYTHING in this country. Those really well-paying jobs that used to be out there for high school graduates no longer are. The more technically oriented ones now require training in a 2 year college. Maybe thee needs to be a hybrid, sort of like Junior High School, wherein high school students can opt to receive the higher level technical training to become car mechanics or plumbers at those Community Colleges. Some programs like those do exist, but there is such a ridiculously effete,elitist attitude among parents, other students and , frankly, many of my fellow educators regarding attending them, that they are nowhere near s effective as they might be.

Everyone should have the option to attend college. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living until I was in my Junior year of college, and many discover that vocation while there. However, I attended City University which, at the time, was so inexpensive I was able to pay my own tuition with the part time job I had. MY parents were not shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for me to party, get Cs and “find myself”. That also has to be addressed. Thee is little to no reason for a college education of worth to cost the consumer upwards of 200 thousand dollars for 4 years. State University, which my daughter, a very highly ranked student from her graduating class attended, will grant you the same or ,dare I say, a superior education to many of the private colleges out there, and the cost for all four years at the former will be equal to the cost of one year at the latter. Parents and students have to become smarter consumers as well and drop these ridiculous, again, elitist ideas about college. Many of my colleagues were absolutely aghast that I, an educator, would actually send my highly motivated, high performing (but not scholarship eligible) daughter to “just” State school. Now that she has graduated and is till, as so many are, unemployed, at least she is debt free—no student loans. As fewer people opt for the overpriced private institutions, the market will demand a drop in price. This involves a major ATTITUDE shift in this country. We would not spend as much on high school education if we really did offer dual tracks and partnered in sharing some of those costs for a good percentage of our students with our local community colleges who already offer great vocational programs. The pool of 4 year college candidates would shrink somewhat, and if parents became smarter consumers and stopped buying a lot of the private college hype, state universities would have larger student bodies and that might defer some of their current cost, while private colleges, facing a student shortfall, would have no choice but to respond to the “market forces” and lower the price for what they supply to increase the demand. The single most important factor in all of thise, however, is a MAJOR attitude adjustment for us as a society.”

I cheered when I read this. 

#2 comes from Josh: 

Judging by my experience at work, once one has become established in a profession, the source of one’s degree doesn’t much matter. That being said, it does matter when one is first entering the job market, since in the absence of a reputation it tells the prospective employer something about whether the applicant has had a decent education.

Perhaps more to the point, it would never occur to an upper middle class family *not* to send their kid to the best school he could get into. That points to certain cultural attributes — ambition, and a knowledge of how to manipulate the system — that have great value at work.

In my years in the workplace, I became very aware of the degree to which cultural assumptions associated with class determined success in the workplace. Some talented and ambitious employees were able to transcend their backgrounds. But more frequently, people from working class backgrounds lacked the drive and self confidence necessary to move up in the corporate world.

I jeered when I read that. 

Steve makes excellent points about a shift away from elitism in the professional world and the need to produce things again in this country. Josh, on the other hand, exudes the elitism that reinforces the broken system we currently have.

Let’s examine this for a moment: 

"more frequently, people from working class backgrounds lacked the drive and self confidence necessary to move up in the corporate world."

That’s an awfully biased and unfair assumption to make, whether or not Josh believes it’s backed up by his observations. Simply stating that drive and self confidence comes from being a child of privilege is absurd. My (middle-class) family alone disproves this theory. I attended a well-esteemed private liberal arts college, skated my way through 4 years, graduated with a 2.7 GPA and have struggled to find meaningful work since. My sister, on the other hand, attended a state school, graduated with an excellent GPA, and is currently in her third year of medical school. 

(to add to that - and to bolster Steve’s point - I’m about to begin work for a program that that will train me in a trade…this might actually be the beginning of a meaningful career for me).

it does matter when one is first entering the job market, since in the absence of a reputation it tells the prospective employer something about whether the applicant has had a decent education.

Again, incorrect assumption…..I’d wager my college has a stronger reputation than the school my sister went to, yet I’d make a side bet on that wager she received a better education overall. 

How about this - you get to choose between a Harvard grad and a UMass grad for a given position. The Harvard kid barely tried, earned a passable GPA, and wasn’t that involved on campus/didn’t have any internships. The UMass kid, on the other hand, graduated with honors, had several internships, and worked his way through college to pay for his tuition. You’re going to go with the Harvard kid because Harvard is a “better” school? 

That points to certain cultural attributes — ambition, and a knowledge of how to manipulate the system — that have great value at work.

 Being a good manipulator is a valued trait to have at work?  

Perhaps more to the point, it would never occur to an upper middle class family *not* to send their kid to the best school he could get into. 

I chose the “best” school that I got in to to attend college and haven’t earned more than $10 an hour since I graduated 3 years ago. That worked out really well, huh?