There is an unfortunate trend in modern higher education that goes against conservative and progressive ideals alike. By nature of their process, top schools in the U.S. are perpetuating and insulating a very small, very elite leadership class.
In a recent piece titled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” The New Republic's William Deresiewicz criticizes a wealth of problems within the top levels of higher education. He argues that the current admissions process contributes greatly to the perpetuation of the current highest social class. The immense resume demands of the Ivy League schools (extensive volunteering, many extracurriculars, "experiences" like foreign travel) are difficult for the average parent to attain for their children. They cost significant time and/or money. The current upper class, however, has no problem paying whatever it takes. By the nature of their acceptance process, top schools are rubber stamping the children of upper class. Only well-off families can afford to turn their kids into Ivy League material. As Deresiewicz explains,
"This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
"The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools."
Want the best job? Better get into the best schools. Want to get into the best school? Your parents better have some of the best jobs. Round and round the cycle goes.
So what, right? Isn't this just the market at work?
That isn't enough of an answer, for there are broader cultural problems at work here. Markets are the product of a large number of people making individual moral judgments, and we are making the wrong ones. More disturbing than the Ivy admissions process, is how readily top employers go along with it. They put a heavy emphasis on job applicants with degrees, and extra emphasis on those with degrees from “top schools.” The impact of the highest class dominating the best schools would be somewhat marginalized if employers didn't fall all over themselves to pursue these applicants.
The impact on culture is becoming clear: very few middle- and lower-class Americans will go to the highest schools and, therefore, they won't get the best jobs. Plus, since our culture is constantly pushing all young people to go to college, the overall four-year experience is increasingly centered on preparation for the workforce (or inane electives that are more fun than learning). Career-oriented studies are emphasized, and the liberal arts are thrown out. So not only is the four year degree process hampering social mobility, it's not even providing a liberal arts education that would better prepare young adults for their future.
Deresiewicz believes that we need to create a society in which you can get a first-rate education at any school (not just the Ivy League). I disagree on this bottom-line. The simple fact is that college costs a fortune, and many, many young people don't need another four years to accumulate debt and postpone joining the workforce, and unlike Deresiewicz, I don't think government should pay for it. The logical payer for technical expertise is the entity that will benefit from it: the employer.
We should cultivate a culture in which employers are encouraged to subsidize the education of their employees. Many students would be well suited to move into the workforce immediately after high school, preferably joining either apprenticeship programs or short-term technical college training sponsored by their future employer. Two years of tech school training provided for by “Widgets, Inc.”, for instance, with a four-year work commitment following graduation. The employer is guaranteed a committed, educated worker, and the cost would be much cheaper than the modern Bachelor's because many of the general education classes could be stripped out. Employers could even demand part-time work during the process, to ensure the student was worth the scholarship.
So what could actually be lost if we move away from a Bachelor's degree? The potential for a liberal arts education that teaches us to think independently and critically, and to become better leaders and people? But most college students aren’t currently getting that anyway. That's why we should push more strongly for a liberal arts education in high school. If the average American student came out of high school with a better education in the first place, we would not need Deresiewicz's ideal of a first-rate education in every college. Many students could move directly into the workforce out of high school.
For those who want to continue down the liberal arts path, by all means go get a traditional Bachelor's degree! The simple fact that many students would move directly into the workforce or technical, work-oriented education after high school would not preclude others from pursuing more study in the liberal arts. (In fact, the market shift away from the Bachelor's-for-all mentality would likely encourage the remaining colleges to emphasize the liberal arts more strongly.) I'm simply suggesting that there be a more clear division between a liberal arts college education and job-oriented learning. Then those pursuing career-oriented education can avoid the money pit of four years of school debt.
This vision would require a cultural sea-change that would likely take decades, but it is important if we want to lower student debt, increase the academic and employment opportunities of the middle and lower classes, and expand the influence of a traditional liberal arts education.
The current situation just wastes four years of students' time and money and delays marriage and new families, all in an effort to somehow achieve the label of "employment eligible" for a basic white collar job that in reality requires very few of the "skills" you acquired while getting your bachelor's degree.
Hopefully parents will wake up to the insanity of a system that seems mainly to benefit colleges, student loan providers, and lazy employers at an enormous financial and opportunity cost to middle and lower classes. Alternatives roads like online colleges and local community and tech schools can go a long way to shaking up the system, but parents, students, and foreword-thinking employers will have to push for a distinction between a four-year liberal arts education and work-oriented education. Let's make these choices with eyes wide open and not be bullied by inertia into jumping on to the soul-sapping, degree-collecting hamster wheel.