Higher education was once a luxury item for Americans. Families who had the means and/or men, who didn’t need to support their families of origin, went to college. There were no entrance exams or even much to speak of in the way of requirements. If you could find your way there, and were of the ‘right’ background, you could give it a go. There was no such thing as ‘student life’. Oh the students did live, but they did so under their own direction. Boarding houses, spare rooms, and inexpensive restaurants were the origin of the student life species. Slowly colleges and university became more accessible, less religious, and somewhat more diverse. The G.I. Bill may have been the greatest diversification of higher education. People (mostly men) from all backgrounds were now attending college for the first time. This phenomenon created an awareness and glimmer of opportunity for families across the country. College began to seem less of an elitist pursuit and more an intrinsic part of the American Dream.
Fast-forward and we are now experiencing the aftershock of a similar deluge of students. The baby boomers’ children attended college in large numbers. Colleges/universities competed for these tuition paying people by out positioning each other. Monies were spent to upgrade and to market a ‘student life’ experience that would appeal to a generation who lived larger than their ancestors. Concurrently, government spending in higher education ebbed and the stock market did that bad thing. Tuition and student debt rose. A few years before all this, employers began to view a baccalaureate degree as a minimum requirement for almost every job. At face value this would appear reactionary. Well of course a B.S. or B.A. is a requirement! Why wouldn’t it be? After all, everyone has one! But the truth is probably a bit more calculating than that. The fact is that as all this was happening in higher education, K-12 was changing as well. A high school diploma rarely delivers a workplace ready employee. A high school diploma was once an accomplishment in and of itself, and a ticket to secure employment. That 50% of incoming college freshman need remedial work, speaks to the state of a high school diploma. College work has not gotten more difficult, if anything there are curriculums so breezy they would make those boarding house dwellers of yesteryear spin in their graves.
Skyrocketing tuition plus the baccalaureate replacing a high school diploma as a requirement creates a perfect storm of sorts. We are beginning, and will continue to see the formation of two tracks of higher education. Some of us remember (or heard stories) of these tracks in K-12. Certainly we’ve heard of programs in foreign lands that still adhere to tracking. Students who were seen as being more practical than scholars, were steered into technical vocations. Those perceived as having scholarly potential were readied for higher education. There are many colleges across the country that cater to average students. (There is something to say for college being an experience for all learners.) Colleges, in these cases are charging and receiving extraordinary amounts of money to create workplace readiness. These colleges are private as well as public and diverse in their origins and how they deliver degrees. They are doing nothing but fulfilling a need and addressing a reality. Some of these schools have a great alumni network and/or stellar career placement. But what of those that don’t?
We’ve created a very expensive and time consuming way to obtain what we consider a minimum education. The ridiculousness of considering a baccalaureate a prerequisite for all kinds of work is equal to the state of many high school degrees. Public education should be producing young men and women who can write, speak, calculate and think. Colleges (with their enormous expense) should not be taking the place of K-12 public education. 50% of incoming freshman are paying (big bucks) to complete their high school education (via remedial work.) Employers need to rethink what skills are actually needed for each job. They need to beef up their Human Resources offices and return to placement testing. Certificate programs (offered in high schools or in community colleges) should be created in partnership with large-scale employers. It is simply not sustainable, this gerbil wheel we’ve created. There are young men and women spending years and money they may or may not have, because their public education is not all it should be and once was.