Our Misplaced Faith in the Magical Power of “Education”

Charlotte Hays
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Posted: Jan 16, 2015 12:01 AM
Our Misplaced Faith in the Magical Power of “Education”

Americans have a touching faith in Education.

If only more people had access to more Education, the credo goes, the crime rate would plummet, the employment rate will rise, and the inner city would become a veritable Eden, as people turned from lives of petty crime to enriching courses at community colleges.

Community and vocational colleges are great resources, and for the right student they can be a ticket to a better life. But this is not automatic. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps requires more than spending time taking (or merely signing up for) courses. Content, aptitude, and commitment must all be factored into our faith in Education. One can't just sit in something labeled a school; they actually have to learn something that has value.

President Obama’s plan for two years of free community college for “responsible students” is a manifestation of this faith the ameliorating power of Education—any education, for anybody—though I suspect there is also a heady dose of political opportunism behind the initiative. Free college—what could sound better?

Being opposed to the president's plan, even for highly practical reasons, is enough to make the critic sound hardhearted—which, I suspect, is something upon which the president is counting. But there are numerous reasons to oppose this folly, not least of which is that it might do very little for the recipients of this putative largesse.

If you look at the president's plan with--ahem--an educated eye, it quickly falls apart. According to the announcement on the White House website, the plan (if plan is not too grandiose a word for something to which no definite price tag is yet affixed) would “save a full-time community college student $3,800 in tuition per year on average,” and “benefit roughly 9 million students each year.”

Unfortunately, the White House definition of these 9 million “responsible students,” as carried on the White House website, is not by any means stringent:

The president’s proposal would make two years of community college free for students of any age with a C+ average who attend school at least half-time and who are making “steady progress” toward their degree.

Having made a few C’s in my day, I am not about to knock my fellow C students, a notable group that even includes a former president. Still, I question the wisdom of further federal expenditures to ensure that students who failed to make the most of high school can go to college free. Moreover, whatever happened to working your way through school? Working your way through college at a prestigious, four-year college, where the tuition is more than a down payment on a house, is nearly impossible. But look at the yearly savings the White House touts: $3, 800.

Okay, raising nearly four grand for community college is no mean feat, especially in this lousy economy. But it should be doable, and earning and putting away that amount is a down payment on more than a house: it is a down payment on a future. One could argue that earning the money is far more beneficial than being handed it as a reward for a so-so high school career. Character should be part of a good education, and holding down a paying job and saving one's earnings is both character-building and possible. All it requires is grit and commitment.

Nobody who has made this kind of commitment is going to just sit idly in class and be happy just to have some respite from the dog-eat-dog world of work. Indeed, I have a friend who actually worked her way through Barnard, back in the day, when this was possible. She told me that her level of seriousness was exponentially higher than that of many of her fellow students who’d had it all handed to them on a silver platter. Why deprive people of this opportunity to develop character? And why place people who aren’t serious in the classroom?

And what about the community colleges that would participate in the president’s free college plan? The requirements here are also less than stringent. Here is what the White House website says:

To be eligible, community colleges would have to offer academic programs that fully transfer credits to local public four-year colleges and universities or training programs with high graduation rates that lead to in-demand degrees and certificates. Community colleges must also adopt “promising and evidence-based institutional reforms” to improve student outcomes.

I like that “high graduation rate.” But can't that be a way of saying “easy courses that get our numbers up but don’t require the students to actually buckle down and work?” Moreover, just as with the Obama Administration's gainful employment rule would create perverse incentives for schools, putting some prospective students (such as those from lower-income families) at a disadvantage, this type of incentive system would give the government a disturbing amount of sway over educational institutions that should be independent.

The White House website goes on to say:

Under President Obama's new proposal, students would be able to earn the first half of a bachelor's degree, or earn the technical skills needed in the workforce -- all at no cost to them.

But there will be a cost to someone—the taxpayer. And what about that number that 9 million students will benefit—undoubtedly, many of these beneficiaries are people who might benefit more from going directly into the workforce. Contrary to what the New Class believes, there is nothing demeaning about getting a job that doesn’t require a college degree. We should entertain the heresy that not everybody benefits from college. This is not to knock higher education. It is simply to say that there is no disgrace in another path.

But there is one thing in the president’s plan that does evoke a hear! hear! from me:

In our growing global economy, Americans need to have more knowledge and more skills to compete -- by 2020, an estimated 35 percent of job openings will require at least a bachelor's degree, and 30 percent will require some college or an associate's degree. Students should be able to get the knowledge and the skills they need without taking on decades' worth of student debt.

Students who have the ambition and aptitude to go to college should be able to get the knowledge and skills they need without going into decades’ worth of student debt. But this will happen only if the federal government steps back from the arena of educational funding and college tuition is set in a market-oriented environment.

We should also become more realistic about education. I once rode with an embittered cab driver (forgive me for indulging in that most clichéd of journalistic conventions: the cabbie interview), who felt life was unfair because he was stuck ferrying the likes of me around town, even though he had a degree in economics.

But he had a solution to his problem: he was going back to the University of the District of Columbia, his alma mater, to take more courses! His faith in Education, my friends, was formidable.

What the president’s plan fails to take into consideration are two not inconsequential factors: the content of an education, and the level of commitment by prospective students. It is sending the message: sit through these classes, and you’ve got it made. That is false belief is likely to lead to a lot of heart-break.