There was a horrific fatal stampede this week for a chance to attend college, in South Africa. A line over a mile long, waited at the gate for a coveted seat in the University of Johannesburg. High school graduates (and some parents) crowded together, arms filled with blankets and other supplies, desperate for a chance for a better life. One third of that country is unemployed and high education is only recently available to all.
This heartbreaking story needn’t suffer any disrespect to serve as an allegory for us. We have reached a point, for better or worse, at which a four year degree has taken on mythic remedy. A bachelor degree may not be the ticket to upward mobility it once was, but you’d be hard pressed to gain employment without one. We need only to turn on an old movie to remember that high school degrees were once a coveted commodity. Independent of the swelling middle class and higher education accessibility, I’m not sure a high school degree today bears any resemblance to that of pre-World War II. However thanks to the G.I. Bill and the major shifts in American industry, a college education has become an increasingly normative expectation in the world of work.
Today we expect the vast majority of high school graduates to attend college. We can probably agree that high school graduation standards are not what they once were. Everyone is expected to graduate, and every measure is taken to ensure that will be the case. Bluntly put, a high school diploma is not the proof of mastery it once was. In addition to potentially ill-prepared students, we have the skyrocketing costs of college. It is no secret that students (and their families) are incurring crippling debt with absolutely no guarantee on investment. For every college graduate with a marketable degree there must be at least one who paid for five or six years of school, or has graduated with a degree in a traditionally non-income earning field (i.e., art, dance, etc.)
Now before we all start waxing poetic about the priceless nature of a liberal arts degree, and the beauty of learning for learning sake, let me just say; It’s over. The only people who still have the luxury of pouring over great works of literature in gorgeous libraries (for enjoyment’s sake) and sitting on grassy quads discussing Plato, are those who know they will not be supporting themselves. Higher education has become a means to employment. Trust me, I am none too pleased either.
Aside from the romantic dream of a liberal arts degree withering in front of my eyes, it is the more practical matter of expecting all students to succeed in college, that worries me. One size never fits all. However we really do expect every high school graduate to either attend college or enlist in the military. Yes, there are a few “trades” jobs in this country, but the unemployment rate would suggest that any available jobs would not be going to teenagers. What we need is a viable alternative and lucky for us, we have one! Americorps has existed for twenty years, yet it has not been integrated into our culture in the way the military has. If business were under the same guidelines to hire Americorps veterans as military veterans, and high schools offered Americorps as an equal option to the military, people would see the experience as a viable path to employment.
I am not anti-higher education, far from it. I am not, however comfortable with the tail wagging the dog, and colleges (and I use that term somewhat loosely) cropping up to service remedial learners and (for a hefty price) provide them with a degree. We’ve already gone done this road with high school. I am not comfortable with the crippling students loan debt and the national economic implications. I am not comfortable with telling every high school student that they have such limited options. Let’s take a step back and think of what our economy and our teenagers need.