The role of higher education in Americans’ lives exists on a number of different spectrums. When I was younger, attending a private school but living in a working-class Toledo neighbourhood, the spectrum I became most aware of was that of possibility. Even though I was going to a school where college was pretty much a given for every graduate, I was living with families where even the chance to go to college one day was far from certain. At the time, I didn’t pay so much attention to that dynamic — the misplaced priorities of youth — but my subsequent teaching career has forced me to revisit this topic frequently, and to do a lot of research so I can learn how to better serve the students whose tuition monies go to pay my salary.
Another spectrum, one that I learned about much later, is the perceived good that people see in a post-secondary education. I’m not talking about value here, the things about how much more money the average college graduate makes in their lifetime and all of that; rather, I’m talking about “good” in the moral sense of the word, or how righteous it is to pursue education past high school. When I was younger, I just assumed that everyone would want to go to college after high school, regardless of whether or not they had the grades and money to do so. Part of that was probably because of the school I went to, and another part was likely influenced by my father being a college graduate, but the notion that people would consider a college education a bad thing never seemed to cross my mind.
Even as the first national debates about “political correctness” on American campuses exploded when I was in junior high, I never detected that conservatives thought that higher education, in and of itself, was “evil” or what have you. Because they spoke in terms of making reforms to campuses — a rhetoric that continues to this day — I thought that it was still broadly believed that going to college after high school was something that every young person ought to aspire to. People might disagree about the form that a college education should take, but there appeared to be little disagreement that the education itself was something worth struggling for, whether you were talking about parents saving money or children studying diligently.
A lot has changed since then, of course. There had been a strain of conservative thought, long before I was born, that positioned American colleges and universities as alleged “institutions of liberal indoctrination” (especially in the wake of young Americans’ activism in the sixties), but that kind of talk was still confined to right-wing talk radio well into the nineties. Gradually, though, the idea that a college education might cause more harm than good became more and more acceptable, until last year a Pew Research poll found that a majority of Republicans now believe that American colleges and universities create more negative than positive effects on the country. Judging by the trend lines, it seems unlikely that this will change any time soon.
There are many reasons for this perception spreading, from conservatives’ attacks on education to their own figureheads increasingly eschewing intellectual debate in favour of populist sloganeering, but regardless of the reasons, the end result is a rhetoric reinforcing the old saw about a college degree not being “worth the paper it’s printed on.” I’d heard that phrase used in relation to certain majors for a long time (and, as someone with a graduate degree in English Literature and a BA in Creative Writing, I’ve made more than a few morbid jokes about my own degrees over the years), but nowadays that sentiment seems to hold true across nearly all fields of study for an ever-increasing percentage of the American public.
It’s one thing to argue that college degrees aren’t worth the time and money, but it’s another thing entirely to actively devalue college. More and more, it feels like conservative politicians are taking active steps to make “college isn’t worth it” less of an opinion, and more of a quantifiable statement of fact. Making it harder for students who get defrauded by colleges to get their student loans forgiven is only the latest step towards that goal.
Decisions about what majors to pick and what degrees to pursue are extraordinarily difficult, but even choosing whether or not to go to college can be very complicated. Beyond issues of time and money, not everyone is suited for college, and even though I have an obvious self-interest in seeing as many people attend college as possible, I would no more try to “sell” a college education to someone unsuited for college than I would try to sell sugary soda to a diabetic. Some people just aren’t meant for higher education, which is why we need to be doing a lot better when it comes to treating jobs that don’t require a college degree — and, more importantly, the people who perform those jobs — with more respect.
Keeping that in mind, today’s high school graduates may be in a tougher position to make that decision than any generation in my lifetime. Beyond the problems that every class of seniors has to deal with — parents and teachers and guidance counselors pushing them to choose a major before they’re ready to do so, the whiplash-inducing life changes that come with turning eighteen — recent high school graduates have lived through two deep recessions where the recoveries were largely unnoticed by middle- and working-class Americans, prospects for everything from full-time job openings to the endurance of Social Security seem as low as they’ve ever been, and blaming young people for dead-end situations they had no hand in causing became a sickening cliché years ago.
More to the point, because of how primary and secondary education in many parts of the country has become a shadow of its past self — chronically-underfunded public schools, abysmally-mismanaged charter schools, a zombie-like focus on standardized test scores — many high school graduates lack the critical thinking skills necessary to make these crucial decisions. Just like Maslow’s Hammer trains the mind to treat every problem like a nail, what passes for a high school education in many parts of America these days trains students to treat every problem they face like something as simple as filling out a bubble on a Scantron sheet. Few, if any, of life’s problems can be reliably simplified to that extent, and decisions about college certainly aren’t among them.
It’s bad enough when Americans get tricked by higher education scams — predatory loans, the Corinthian Colleges debacle, and so on — but the notion of making their efforts to get their student loans forgiven, money they borrowed for services they may not have even received, goes beyond the cruel and into the perverse. How this current administration has repeatedly privileged the ability of companies to rip consumers off, over the ability of said consumers to receive accurate information about the products and services they’re buying (and to get paid back when companies succeed in ripping them off), is one of the dark undercurrents of the time Americans live in that we need to talk about more, but perhaps most so when it comes to how they’ve devalued education, because there may be no more important tool for less-privileged Americans to raise themselves up than a quality, reliable, authentic education.
For more-privileged Americans, of course, these are no concerns (for them directly) at all. Not only do they possess the money to send their college-age offspring to quality colleges and universities (and without having to deal with student loans, thus avoiding that whole sector of the American economy), but they also have the critical thinking skills necessary to assist their children in selecting a good college (or, in many cases I saw when I was younger, making the choice for their children). Unless they care about what happens to Americans who aren’t as well-off as they are, all this talk about the devaluing of education just glances off of them like higher milk prices at the grocery store.
As many disagreements as I may have with Elizabeth Warren, her powers of prognostication when it comes to nailing down the causes of nationwide economic calamity have been superb, and she has repeatedly cautioned about how the potential for the bursting of the student loan bubble to throw America into another deep recession. This is a potential disaster we should be steering away from, but the current administration seems to be far more intent on exacerbating the problems that already exist, if not potentially helping their friends profit from a potential tidal wave of student loan defaulting. This would be scandalous if it weren’t so common, especially this past year.
As hard as we teachers may work inside our classrooms to help educate our students to make better decisions for themselves, our power outside of our classrooms is much more limited. As the swath of young Americans who finish their schooling without developing critical thinking skills grows wider and wider, not only will there be more Americans who need help, but the ability to provide that help will be diminished as these same people repeat that old line about degrees not being worth the paper they’re printed on. Too many people are working to make that statement a quantifiable fact. The rest of us need to dig in our heels and prove them wrong, before the possibility for change disappears completely.