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Commentary: Rethinking the concept of college

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2012 - In this era of increasing globalization and fierce economic competition, most countries recognize their futures will be powerfully shaped by the quality of their investments in schools and, especially, education beyond high school. I believe the state of American post-secondary and higher education is neither strong nor are the major trends encouraging.

Every student can benefit from quality studies in the liberal arts and sciences: exceptional teachers, expansive curricula, small class sizes, strong interaction between faculty and students, experiential connections between campus and the larger society.

However, that traditional notion of higher education is increasingly challenged. Rather than seeking personal and intellectual growth, students and parents increasingly focus on preparing students for success in the workplace, that is for making a living.

Indeed, the Pew Research Center reports that 57 percent of adults believe higher education is not a good value for all the time and money spent to acquire it. Two-thirds of 18-34 year olds say they prefer to work as soon as possible to support themselves and their families. Increasingly, they find four-year college education unaffordable or dysfunctional to their interests and life circumstances.

Employers, too, complain that college graduates usually present only paper diplomas and certificates that don't reveal what courses the graduate has studied, how well she has mastered important skills, what she can actually do for the employer. Even 38 percent of college presidents think American higher education is headed in the wrong direction, and only 7 percent think the U.S. will be the world leader in higher education 10 years from now.

The U.S. once led the world in the percentage of young people earning a post-high school degree. Today, we rank twelfth at 40 percent, while our neighbor Canada ranks first at 56 percent. Broken down by demographic subgroups, there are larger disparities. For example, among our burgeoning minority populations only 11 percent of all four-year diplomas are earned by Latinos.

More troubling, the pipeline to post-secondary credentials is dangerously weak. Every year, 1.3 million youth fail to complete high school. At least one-quarter of high school graduates either terminate any formal education after graduation or they begin post-high school programs but never complete them.

In recent years, 41 of our state governments have sharply reduced public funding for higher education. Many of America's greatest public universities – Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Charlottesville – now receive as little as 7 to 10 percent of their budgets from state funding.

With college tuition and fees rising two to three times the rate of inflation, there is never enough student financial aid to meet the needs of students who cannot afford the full costs of college. When federal student aid began in 1965, it was largely in the form of scholarship grants for very low-income students. That assistance is now thinly shared by families earning up to $50,000 annually. Grants have been largely replaced by a variety of student and family loan programs. The result: many graduates leave college with debts of $25,000, $50,000, even $100,000.

Naturally, colleges have turned to affluent families who can bear a larger share of the college sticker price. Foreign students, whose families can afford the full costs of study, are favorite targets of America's campus student recruiters. American students, in turn, have resorted to only part-time study and taken on larger amounts of paid employment. Thus, the average undergraduate degree now takes more than six years to complete and the average age of students is now over 29.

Overall, students from America's wealthiest families are eight times more likely to earn a baccalaureate degree than our lowest-income families.

Public opinion polls find that the general public believes that success in life and career requires the acquisition of a "college degree," and 94 percent of parents think their young children "will go to college." In reality, only 40 percent of adults have earned a baccalaureate or graduate degree. The 60 percent who have not are increasingly depicted in the popular culture as less talented, less smart and even less worthy. College non-completers tend to believe society has unfairly stacked the odds against them, that college is a sorting system serving primarily the wealthy and the privileged. This "we/they" thinking (the 99 percent vs the 1 percent) is extremely toxic for social cohesion and for the health of our democracy.

In this time of rising concern about the role of inequality in American economic and social life, what can be done to lower the heat on the growing gulf between the four-year college-educated and everyone else?

First, we must broaden our understanding of the concept called “college.” The modern world does demand that virtually everyone obtain structured education and training after high school. Every person should have the opportunity to pursue a high-quality four-year program, but, if not, he or she should have access to a choice of career development options that lead to economic success, civic engagement and personal dignity.

Second, we should support every legitimate effort to expand post-high school learning in community colleges, trade-technical and creative arts schools, in adult education programs and by building on the experience and skills of our military veterans. Dozens of careers provide annual incomes that approach those of many four-year university graduates: nursing assistants, pilots, air traffic controllers, medical technicians, court reporters, information technology managers, plumbers, electricians, police and fire chiefs, for example.

Third, we should recognize how much our society depends on and is enriched by the contributions of those who did not complete a post-high school credential -- not just Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Steven Spielberg and Michael Dell, but also Oracle's Larry Ellison, Google's Larry Page, astronaut Sen. John Glenn, Walt Disney, Edwin Land, Buckminster Fuller, Ralph Lauren, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, Tom Hanks, cosmetics' Mary Kay Ash, Rachael Ray and many thousands less famous.

Finally, if you or your children are graduates of Washington University, appreciate your exceptional good fortune and mix it with a measure of humility. In this age of great opportunity for the learned, the skilled, and the highly motivated, you are a winner. Your moral obligation now is help others be winners, too.

Samuel Halperin recently was honored by Washington University in St. Louis as a distinguished alumnus. Halperin is founder and senior fellow of the American Youth Policy Forum. The preceding is from his remarks.