Columns

Chang ’10: Who deserves to go to college?

By
Opinions Columnist

I spotted the headline, “Are Too Many Students Going to College?” while browsing the New York Times online and, for a second, thought that I’d accidentally clicked on the Onion’s site instead. 

Despite my initial reaction, I’ll admit that the anti-college stance intrigued me. We’re constantly being reminded that the economic forecast is grim, and that even our Ivy League degrees are not reliable flotation devices for weathering the storm.

The article quotes several academics who debated the merits of going to college. Richard Vedder, a college professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, notes that graduating students outnumber available degree-requiring jobs, causing many to take positions for which they are overqualified.

Bryan Caplan, another professor, views college as a “wasteful status contest” that “deprives the economy” of output from students who could be working instead, considering all the infrastructure-rebuilding jobs that the Obama administration is making available. 

I don’t agree with the viewpoint of college as purely utilitarian, as I’ve always hated talk about the “hardest” majors — usually referring to the sciences — being more useful and intellectual than “easier” ones. But these arguments are valid in attacking the belief that a college education is the only defense against unemployment and the only guarantee of future wealth. Merely focusing on increasing rates of college attendance will not improve the job market.

The assumption of a correlation between college and success results in disappointment and resentment, aptly demonstrated by the infamous case of the Monroe College grad who is suing her school for failing to secure her “full-time job placement” after graduation.

Attending college is not a requirement for success and happiness later in life. Students should not be pressured to attend four-year institutions, as there is nothing “wrong” with attending trade schools or choosing other paths, according to the article.
I was nodding in agreement until it came time for them to discuss exactly who they thought was “fit” for a college education. The opinions supported a status quo benefitting the already privileged.

In the 1970s, there were concerns that an overemphasis on Bachelor of Arts degrees favored upper class students with access to educational resources, while leaving lower class students behind. Troublingly, most of today’s critics believe that this is the way it should be — that students with poor grades who attend public institutions are a potential “waste of human and financial resources.”

Marty Nemko, a career counselor, advises that underachieving students be warned of their likelihood of failure and steered away from pursing a degree. Charles Murray, a political scientist, cites IQ scores and judges some students too stupid to merit higher education. He advises them to channel their energies elsewhere to be more useful to society.

Huxley would term them Deltas and Epsilons, perhaps. 

These pundits all seem relatively well-educated. It’s easy for them to wax existential about the true value of a college education and bemoan the difficulties of finding a “reliable plumber” with so many unfit students wasting their time in school.

For these privileged individuals, a college education can amount to nothing but four years of learning skills inapplicable to real life. They cannot understand that education is an equalizer for marginalized groups, a way to transcend society’s imposed limits. It is not their right to decide the value of a college education for other people.

Numbers and letters alone cannot reveal a person’s affinity for a college education. The recent declines in test scores nationwide are probably better indicators of our poor educational infrastructure than of the intelligence of the students.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds often end up with similarly unequal education opportunities. They aren’t necessarily stupider than their more accomplished peers. They’re often well aware of what obstacles they face. A professor of a developmental English class observes that they are “conditioned from birth to accept their place.”
I’m sure that Nemko’s well-meaning but ignorant idea of reminding such students of their likelihood for failure would not help matters much, to say the least.  

The emphasis on individual responsibility in determining the outcome of one’s life cannot be applied in all cases. A student from a low-income family living in the slums of an overcrowded neighborhood has reasons for poor educational performance that a financially comfortable, well-educated college professor or career advisor could never fully understand.

With many public colleges already greatly incapacitated by funding cuts, the mere notion that college is unnecessary, especially for public school students, could lead to education being even less of a priority.

The concern about “wasting” funds on the “undeserving” mirrors the fears that nearly incapacitated — and, mind you, still ended up botching — health-care reform. It’s easy for those in power to blame the underprivileged, rather than admit that there is something wrong with the system as a whole.

Ivy Chang ’10 is a human biology concentrator from Los Angeles. She can be reached at ivy_chang-at-brown.edu.