Wherein we might find common ground in the “college is/isn’t for everyone” debate
by Gabriel Conroy
Sometimes our most contentious debates hide the opportunity for common ground. I think I’ve found the possibility for just such a common ground in the debate over whether college is, or should be, for everyone.
Megan McArdle has written an article on Mr. Obama’s plan to subsidize community college tuition for everyone. Probably unsurprisingly, she’s skeptical and mostly opposed to the plan. Her argument is twofold. First, she suspects the bad effects of the plan would outweigh the good effects and in some ways run against the stated purposes of the plan. That part of her argument is more or less empirical. It can be tested or measured. Once measured, people can evaluate the tradeoffs and decide if the plan is a good thing or not. One can believe that college ought to be for everyone or mostly everyone and still agree with her that Mr. Obama’s plan is bad. Or someone can believe that college isn’t for everyone and yet disagree with her, finding that Mr. Obama’s plan could go a ways toward helping those for whom college is a good thing and ought to be endorsed.
But her second argument touches much more directly on the “college is/isn’t for everybody” debate that arises occasionally at the OT. She asks the following question (as usual, “read the whole thing, etc.):
“If you graduated high school without mastering basic math and reading, and can’t complete the remedial courses offered by your community college, what are the odds that you are going to earn a valuable degree? Why are we so obsessed with pushing that group further into the higher education system, rather than asking if we aren’t putting too much emphasis on getting a degree?”
Against the charge that her question represents a certain elitism, she says,
“I would argue instead that what’s elitist is our current fixation on college. It starts from the supposition that being good at school is some sort of great personal virtue, so that any suggestion that many people aren’t good at school must mean that those people are not equal and valuable members of society.”
“Pretending that everyone has the potential to be like the tiny class of educated people who run policy in this country is not egalitarianism; it is the secret snobbery of a mandarin class who really do think that being good at school made them more worthy and important than everyone else.”
And still further:
“Higher education is becoming the ginseng of the policy world: a sort of all-purpose snake oil for solving any problem you’d care to name, as long as we consume enough of it. Education is a very good thing, but it is not the only good thing. An indiscriminate focus on pushing more people into the system is no cure for society’s ills–and indeed, often functions as a substitute for helping the people who are struggling in the current system.
“What if people in the policy elite stopped assuming that the ideal was to make everyone more like them, and started thinking about making society more hospitable to those who aren’t?”
McArdle offers some suggestions about how to make the world more hospitable for those who might not have the aptitude for college. Those include deregulation (to increase the number of jobs and opportunities for starting business), “wage subsidies for entry level workers,” and funding for expanded apprenticeship programs.
I think I’d disagree with some of her suggestions, especially if deregulation means repealing Obamacare and if the effect of wage subsidies would be to give employers an incentive to discriminate against older workers.
I also think she overstates her case. People who promote expanded access to college do not necessarily do so out of elitism. At least some of those who say college is for everybody look forward to the expanded opportunities that college supposedly provides, both in narrow financial terms and in terms of expanding one’s intellectual horizons.
But I agree with her diagnosis of the problem. I do detect a hint of “Mandarin snobbery” in some person’s suggestion that they’d prefer to live in a society where everyone has read the classics or where everyone shares a common intellectual discourse, such discourse being defined as that which comports to the content of a humanities undergraduate degree.
Still, my own “side” in the debate has its own baggage. And while I refuse to concede that all discomfort with “college is for everyone” attitudes or with credentialism and the cult of expertise is reducible to “anti-intellectualism.” That discomfort can come with its own hostility to new ideas and its own flavor of bigotry.
This type of discussion at the OT often results in people adopting opposing camps, as I just did in the previous paragraph’s reference to “my own ‘side,'” with each camp drawing lines in the sand, unwilling or unable to see the other’s point. I’m not very confident that I or the others will resist the temptation to do this in whatever discussion follows. But McArdle closes with something that offers the opportunity for us all to meet each other halfway:
“People who drop out of community college really are every bit as valuable to the world as those who emerge summa cum laude from Harvard. The way we acknowledge that is to create a society that values them as workers and citizens, not to declare that we’ll be more than happy to help them . . . just as soon as they get cracking on that diploma.”
That’s not a perfect halfway meeting point. It does restate the contentious assumption that the other “side” is overly focused on college. But I think we can all, or mostly, stipulate that people without formal education deserve respect “as workers and citizens” and, I’ll add, as human beings with their own talents and perspectives to offer. Where this actually takes us in terms of policy, I don’t know. But it’s a good starting point.