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It is thought in American society that a college degree is necessary to pursue a prestige high-paying career. More students are taking the path of higher education causing a growth in student and national debt. Rising debt in a fragile economy, horror stories of students drowning in debt, and schools going bankrupt all lead to important questions. Is the price of admission worth it? Should everybody go to college? Does schooling kill or nurture creativity? Are traditional colleges better than non-traditional ones? Why would I care?
To understand how such problems came to be, it would be best to learn about the origin of modern universities. Early colleges were mainly established for religious groups. They were used to educate and train ministers. Harvard was one of the first colleges found in the colonies, but took a less traditional route by producing lawyers, politicians, and farmers. The curriculum taught there included; Greek, Latin, Geometry, Ancient History, Ethics, and Rhetoric. Students were taught to be philosophers rather than thinkers. Education was extremely different from how it is today. In the Mid-Twentieth century, the number of colleges grew vastly. More students began to attend until it became a nearly mandatory choice. Because of the high expectations present in many career paths, most require some form of college degree, skyrocketing attendance rates. Small institutions grew to be universities and began to move towards the educational system used today in America.
The investment of education is one of the main reasons for America’s success and has played an important part in building a strong economy. America’s belief that every individual deserves an equal opportunity at education is a policy that works, but it is not perfect. Because of the ever-growing student body and the high expectations associated with college degrees, prices have continued to grow steadily. Until recently when the price of tuition nearly doubled, sparking concern and debate.
The debate over higher education and its worth is controversial, with many different voices and opinions. The most commonly used topics include; debt, tuition, price, traditional colleges, value to the individual, and the “college experience.” The value of higher education is such a popular debate due to the job industry. Common thought is in order to get a high end career and succeed, a college degree is required. While statistics have proven that those with college degrees often earn more than these without, this is not always the case. People, like Robert Wilson, encourage other to attend college, saying that the debt is worth it. Others, like Mike Rose, acknowledge that college is not necessary for each person. He recognizes the street smarts that certain people possess that allow them to get by. The issues of higher education are something that must be considered by each student thinking about college. These topics are important to consider in order to make the most beneficial choice when thinking about earning a degree.
In 2010, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Drefius began to table this debate. In their article, “Are Colleges Worth the Price of Admission?”, They have developed such questions through studies of institutions, and interviews of higher education leaders, policy makers, and students across the country. “Our conclusion: Colleges are taking on too many roles and doing none of them well” (180). They believe that schools are spread to scarcely, have taken on too many roles, and are wasting student tuition money and less than important things. Hacker and Drefius do not claim higher education to be useless, but that it is in need of reform. They believe that schools “have lost track of their basic mission to challenge the minds of young people” (180). The authors claim that too much money is being poured into these institutions, and getting little of the important services they deserve out of it.
Sanford J. Ungar, President of the Goucher College in Baltimore, discusses the importance of Liberal Arts Colleges and “misperceptions” that keep people from attending. His ideas emphasize more on what a student gains as an individual; social skills and experience, over the financial problems attending college provide. “Financial issues cannot be ignored, but neither can certain eternal verities: Through immersion in liberal arts, students learn not just to make a living, but also to live a life rich in values and character” (196). Ungar advocates for reformation of how college and the Liberal Arts should be perceived.
Sir Ken Robinson dives deeper into the topic of education in his discussion, “Changing Education Paradigms.” He breaks down the problems in the entire educational system instead of just higher education. He claims that the current process of education desensitizes students from focusing on their talents and individuality. He explains that our educational system was conceived in a different era. A time when attending a higher educational institution was a wonderful bonus, not a requirement for steady employment. According to Robinson, divergent thinking, or thinking creatively, becomes less common as children move to higher grades. Studies such as that support the theory that standardized testing can harm a child’s creative ability. Teaching a student one way to solve a problem and making them repeat and practice it until it is the only way they know how to solve. The indication that schooling lessens creativity is alarming for our future generations and Robinson calls for a change. To him, not only do colleges need reformation, but the entire educational system in America.
In Kevin Carey’s “Why Do You Think They’re Called For-Profit Colleges?” he describes higher education institutions as being “money-making machines” (216). He claims that there is still widespread fraud in the system that has remained even after reformation had taken place from a previous generation accused of fraud. He says that around 90 percent of the revenue made is from federal aid programs. This raises the question of why student tuition is so high. Despite that, he explains that for-profits are not entirely bad. “But that doesn’t mean for-profit higher education is inherently bad. For-profits exist in large part to fix educational market failures left by traditional institutions, and they profit by serving students that public and private non-profit institutions too often ignore” (219). For-profits help fill educational gaps and fix up old, rundown non-profit colleges. Despite being a little sketchy with federal dollars, they appear to be doing good for communities as well.
Hacker, Drefius, Ungar, Carey, and Robinson all speak of reform as the main requirement to fix higher education. Reforming schools to meet student’s needs, individualize courses, improve courses, and take on less trivial tasks to focus on the more important ones. Carey’s ideas focus more on the unnecessary amount of tax dollars spent on for-profit colleges, and how it should significantly lessen tuition costs. He also suggests reformation. Their ideas of the main issue are quite similar, each generally claiming schools are to blame for the situation. However, there are many different ideas of how such problems could be resolved, if not lessened.
Another giant in the debate over higher education is whether the issue lies more in each student and their decisions to attend college. It is not uncommon for undergraduates with low paying jobs and little money saved up to take out more loans then they can pay. Not because they lack intelligence, but because they lack experience and believe they need a degree to get out of poverty. Authors like Liz Addison, Charles Murray, and Mike Rose explore alternatives that could prove useful in preventing people from falling under student loans.
Liz Addison advocates the convenience of community colleges. She goes against the bad reputation lower-end colleges have by praising their programs and low prices. Her philosophy is that cheap access to education allows students to get their bearings, and begin on their path to earning a degree. As for the college “experience,” she claims that it is the same. “Just follow any one of the 1,655 road signs, and pop your head inside- yes, they let anyone in- and there you will find discoveries of a first independent film, a first independent thought, a first independent study. This college experience remains as it should” (212). Addison credits the community college institutions for providing many students access to traditional colleges after earning their two-year degree.
Mike Rose, a college graduate and well established author, uses his mother as an example when writing about higher education’s necessity. His mother was a waitress who excelled at her job. She learned to read people and keep customers happy in order to earn a larger tip. Rose described what he saw as Blue-Collar Brilliance. He explains that despite there being no need for a degree in lower-end jobs, does not imply that the worker is unintelligent. Many blue-collar jobs require workers with a flexible learning curve and a sense of divergent thinking. This is found in many businesses around the world. Not every blue-collar worker is a McDonald’s cashier. Another example Rose used was his Uncle Joe, who was in charge of a paint and body assembly line at a general motors’ company. His uncle, by learning on the job, came up with many solutions that improved the work and made it easier on the employees. “With further promotions, he not only solved problems but also began to find problems to solve: Joe initiated the redesign of the nozzle on a paint-sprayer, thereby eliminating costly and unhealthy over-spray. And he found a way to reduce energy costs on baking ovens without affecting the quality of the paint.” (248). Rose’s uncle and mother are both perfect examples that discredit the notion that intelligence and formal-education go hand-in-hand. They both have proven to have a specific kind of intelligence that not just anyone possess. An intelligence that allows them to earn on the job and improve performance; excelling at their jobs. This is found everywhere in America today. It truly puts strain on the perception that people without degrees are unintelligent.
Student debt the issue that introduced the entire spectrum of flaws in the higher educational system. There are often public stories of students being over flown with debt, and no way to pay it back. Unable to land a career with the degree they earned, they become bankrupt; lives completely ruined. This type of tragedy story easily gets publicity and causes widespread fear of taking out too much for college. But it also raises the question of how common situations like this occur.
According to Robin Wilson, the big propaganda of students suffering from a lifetime of debt, is just that, propaganda. Wilson states that about a third of graduates leave college with little to no debt left to pay. Better yet, of the 65 percent that do owe money, the average amount is around 20,000 dollars. If a graduate uses their degree wisely and earns a job with it, chances are the money they owe can easily be paid off in a few years. However, Wilson explains that this does not mean that student debt is not still a problem. “But for a vocal minority of borrowers, problems with student-loan debt are very real. About 8 percent of undergraduates borrow at least double the national average” (257). The main cause of incredibly high student debt is the undergraduate’s choice in where they attend college. Some are willing to pay any price to attend their dream college, and it usually lands them in bankruptcy. The bad reputation for student debt actually comes from the minority of borrowers, not the whole. According to Wilson, if an undergraduate attends college for practicality instead of sentimentality, and uses their degree wisely, student debt will be very easy to manage.
With research in to the topic, Wilson has defaced one of the most threatening problems present in almost every discussion about higher education. Still, this does not mean that college is for every person. It seems more like the solution for whether a degree is worth pursuing lies with each undergraduate.
Author Charles Murray takes this extremely controversial debate even further off the map by asking “Are too many people going to college?” He believes that there are multiple answers to that question. “Yes and no. More people should be getting the basics of liberal education. But for most students, the places to provide those basics are elementary and middle school”(223). Murray believes that to say too many people are going to college is not the same as saying that people do not need to know core subjects. They do, in fact, but he believes they should be learning much sooner before college. College is meant to be a sort of final test to see how much as student has learned about these core subjects before attending college. Murray, like many others sees college as a test of skill and knowledge, not an automatic entry to a high-paying career.
David Foster Wallace’s “Kenyon Commencement Speech” delves more in to a less discussed aspect of the value in higher education. He focuses on a question that is often overlooked, but still quite important. “Why does it matter and why should I care?” The value of a college degree has two sides to it; economical worth and individual worth. While the economical side of higher education- career choice, practicality, income- is important, it is not necessarily more important than what it means to attend college to each person pondering whether they should attend or not. Wallace puts it into simple words in his own way. “This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship”(207). In his own interesting way, Wallace explains that nobody needs to go to college. He believes that in order to move forward and receive a good education, students must first learn how to look at life. How to think. They must learn to look at things such as a liberal arts degree not just as a ticket to a job, but a reward for learning how to think, use reasoning, and problem-solving. It is not mandatory. It is simply what undergraduates decide to make of it. People can make college a mandatory goal for themselves. If a student believes that a college degree and the “college experience” is what they need to be successful, then they should start working hard to earn one.
Wilson, Addison, Wallace, and Rose all provide broad information on how undergraduates can decide whether to go to college and how to approach it in the most beneficial way. With Wilson discrediting the severity of student debt, the issue of higher education leans more towards what each student looking to attend must decide after graduating high school. Things such as a person’s willing to pay, flexibility in the work industry (blue-collar or white collar), their aspirations, and income. Murray takes the topic in a different direction from most by discussing another possibility for the true purpose of college. All make a stronger point however, that the reformation of the higher education system is unnecessary because the true issue is undergraduates and how they decide to tackle their future. To fix the “educational crisis” it appears that focusing on the students would most likely fix the situation.
To further inquire on the topic of reforming higher education, many authors have different voices and opinions on this topics, and great ideas. Authors like Hacker and Defius and Robinson talk about the danger of creativity loss and “divergent thinking.” While it is important to pursue these skills, they provide little information on how it would be possible to reform schools in order to resolve the situation.
Another subject that could use more data at least, is Liz Addison’s “Two Years are Better Then Four.” She advocates the cheap tuition of community colleges, and how the same “college experience” is still available, but she provides little information on the type of courses available at Two-year colleges. Addison would do well to delve further into the quality of education provided at two year colleges. On top of that, the statistics of students with two year degrees. For example, yearly wages, higher education pursuit passed graduation, and the job industry open to those with two year degrees.
Each author focuses on the American Education System solely. Obviously America is not the only successful country though. Each topic in debate could benefit from being compared to foreign educational systems and policies. Perhaps new “hybrid” educational systems could be examined to provide a different outcome for resolving flaws with higher education. Although, education has been one of America’s big successes and plays an important role in strengthening the economy.
A topic that could be crucial to each argument is where the educational system is heading. Changes are made every year and each change brings about new rules, ideas, and educational opportunities. Ten years from now, higher education may be completely different. To go along with looking at the future, looking at the job industry might be helpful too. It is said that the generation of the 21st century are all going to be taking up jobs that have not come to fruition yet. They do not even exist. Perhaps authors like Ungar could have benefited by expanding on the possibility of there being jobs in the future that actually require a degree in the liberal arts.
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