I’m going to take a stab at a random number and say that 30% of American college students should not be there.
Two weird things have come to a head in the 21st century.
First, for about a century now, attending college has become a palpable manifestation of the American Dream. Once, college was only within reach of the wealthy and of highly academically-oriented people. Now, although the cost is still prohibitive to many, it’s theoretically open to all, and is a prerequisite for social success in many communities.
For example, in my upper-middle-class hometown, 99% (yes, literally) of my high school’s graduates immediately attending some form of college upon graduating, whether private, public, or community college. (The other 1% usually goes into the military.) Now, dear reader, do you really think each and every one of these students loved school and academic learning so much that he wanted to continue this for FOUR (to seven) MORE YEARS?
Compare that to many schools at which I work now, many of whose students would love nothing more than to move on to invigorating institutions of higher education, but either don’t get in because they never got a solid education, or get in and don’t receive as much financial aid as they need, so they must decline and attend a community college to give them a chance to hopefully save up enough money and academic capital to move on to a university.
(Note: the goal of this post isn’t to knock community colleges, but I think most of us will agree that they offer very few resources in comparison with most four-year institutions.)
At the moment, we’re stuck in a bit of a rut, because most of the middle-class and higher just feels like he must go to college no matter what; it’s the bare minimum step to avoid social derision. This “socially mandated” college education has resulted in skyrocketing demand for college, which has led to growth in all silos, including overcrowding of universities and classes. Furthermore, it has directly contributed to the exponential increases in college fees over the past three decades: as more and more students scramble for a few famous names, these elite colleges have free rein to raise their fees. Once the industry leaders raise their fees, all other colleges feel free to follow suit, from essentially matching these fees at second- and third-tier schools to bumping the price a bit even at the least popular college.
(It’s true that as the cost of college has risen, financial aid has, as well. However, aid has not risen nearly as much as cost has, and most of this aid is generally dispensed as student loans: debt, not free money. Many students, such as myself, chose less-desired institutions because, although the initial out-of-pocket cost was the same as a private college, the eventual loans made the cost prohibitive and unrealistic.)
Let’s face it: many of the jobs we taken upon graduating from college don’t actually require a college education. Middle management, secretarial/receptionist work, executive assistants, hotel concierges: did you really need four years of Descartes and Machiavelli for that?
Every halfwit rich boy I know aspired to a career in business, because their fathers did the same and because these children didn’t really care for school anyway. (Insert the obvious crack about our current financial situation here: “And you wonder why Wall Street fucked up…”)
Hoping that they aspire to middle management and no farther: you don’t four years of finance to understand P&L. You don’t need four years of psychology to understand how to market your product or service. You don’t need four years of management classes to understand how to interact in an office environment. If you already know what you want to do, and you don’t really have an interest in learning much else, it is to your and society’s benefit to instead allow you to take only the necessary classes. I mean, come on; all of the skills I just listed are much better learned through practice than from books.
My unrealistic proposal:
College should be open to all; there should not be financial or social barriers to entry. HOWEVER, we as a society should stop emphasizing college as a social stepping stone and instead hope that the people who choose to attend choose to do so either because they’re actually interested in academic learning and/or because it’s actually necessary to perform the duties of their chosen careers.
If a student knows the career he wants and isn’t interested in a traditional liberal arts education, we shouldn’t force him to take these gen eds. It would be more efficient to switch to socially accepting more pre-professional programs instead of relegating their commercials to daytime network TV. (Hello, ITT Tech.)
By removing this social stigma, we could allow four-year universities to focus on those students interested in broad education and/or those who need all those years (i.e. Pre-med), allow others a route that doesn’t waste their time and money, and reemphasize the importance of K-12 education as the institution that’s supposed to help create a decent, well-rounded human being. (That post is for another day…)
The current norm of every well-off kid attending college, regardless of desire or intellect, has just diluted our higher education system’s intellectual capital, exacerbated education costs, and added an unnecessary-yet-essential social step. Allowing other socially-acceptable routes to adulthood would benefit the United States socially, financially, and institutionally.