President’s speech yesterday, and his promise that his administration will work to make sure every student in America has access to college, promises nothing of value to our students. There are three basic reasons for this.
The first: his assurances that everything possible will be done to keep college costs under control. This doesn’t come anywhere close to making college accessible to the average American student. It’s hardly news that middle class and working class families are being financially ruined in this country, and that since the 2008 meltdown economic survival is a daily battle for most people. There is little to no money available to help our children attend college. This means most of the students being targeted for this “assurance” will be depending on loans, in significant amounts. If the message is that college now has become an absolute necessity, and that all of our young adults must attend college, then I believe public colleges should be free. Before the howls of protest ring through the air, please allow me to remind you – or inform those of you too young to remember – colleges across American used to BE free – only a generation ago. Others were easily affordable. When I was an undergraduate in the late 70s, I was able to attend a state university full-time, paying my tuition out of pocket, while working part-time as a legal secretary in Philadelphia, AND living in an apartment in Rittenhouse Square – one of the most beautiful areas of our city. There was no such thing as astronomical college tuition, of ballooning, undischargeable student loans. There was no such thing as unaffordable books, either. Have you checked into the cost of college textbooks? My students tell me that, in some of their classes, textbooks cost several hundred dollars. For one book. It should also be mentioned that the national average number of years to an undergraduate degree is no longer four. It’s six. Six years. So college costs have to be multiplied out by six, not four. The reasons for this are explained in another of my posts. It should be added here that drop out rates are increasing. We are looking at less than 60% of all students who enroll in a 4-year college actually finishing and receiving a degree. Community colleges have a higher drop-rate still. Who are the drop-outs? Often our most vulnerable students. These are the students President Obama’s speech targeted yesterday. Getting them into college is an empty promise if they don’t stay. And, of course, the banks don’t care if they graduate or not. They will start knocking on the door in a heartbeat with their hands out.
No matter how you look at it, the costs of college are outrageous, and a flimsy promise to simply get them under control is no promise at all. I repeat, if our students now absolutely need a college education to prepare successfully for their adult life, then our country should commit to high-quality K-graduate public education being free and open to all. We’ve done it before. We could do it again.
The second issue: College as the golden ticket to a prosperous life is as fallacious as buying lottery tickets as an assurance of wealth. Unless and until our broken economy is repaired, our students are facing joblessness, under-employment, and a life saddled with student loan debt and low-wage, precarious work. As a university professor myself, I’ve seen this reality too often, and it both breaks my heart and infuriates me. I just spoke last night to a former student – one of my best students ever. This young woman was intelligent, hard-working – an A student in all disciplines. Since her graduation three years ago, she has been unable to find a job. Not a job in her field. Not a well-paying job. ANY job. If a student like her is unable to find any work, our economy is a shambles. I have students who tell me that they are terrified to graduate, because their loans will begin to come due and they will be facing financial meltdown. Most of them know by now that their options will be parking cars, waiting tables, working retail, bartending. These are not the jobs that are being promised by President Obama’s rosy picture. But these are the jobs that are the best hope of our young graduates. Unemployment rates among millenials are higher than any other portion of our population; this doesn’t seem to be changing.
Third: The discussions about the quality of the education, the new models of assessment that guarantee success are completely wrong-headed. What is wrong with education in America? One thing: it has been taken out of the hands of the educators, who have trained, studied, prepared and dedicated themselves as academic. But who has gained control of our universities? An ever-growing army of administrators and managers who are now making far too many of the decisions, designing (often senseless) curriculum, implementing changes, slashing departments, converting a well-supported faculty staff to part-time, low-wage workers with little to no say in the way education is being handled. The mission of the administrators? When all lip service is silenced, it is profit. Bottom line budget success. The mission of the educators? To educate. To research and develop new scholarship. To mentor and provide guidance. See the problem?
We are empowering the wrong people, and then asking why education is failing in America. Think about what happened to the practice of medicine in this country when a managerial class moved in and began dictating to doctors what they could and could not do in treatment of their patients. Taking education out of the hands of the educators has the same disastrous results as taking the practice of medicine out of the hands of the doctors. We heard absolutely nothing from President Obama yesterday in regard to restoring the faculty to their former, central role in the education of our students. We heard nothing about the fact that our institutions of higher education have been turned into edu-factories, where the majority (75%) of scholars and professors are hired fifteen weeks at a time, for wages lower than fast food workers, relegated to working an assembly line of students in an ever-more standardized curriculum.
These are the real problems facing us as we address how to repair education in America. Our institutions of higher education are broken. Our economy is broken. Our country’s professoriate has been deprofessionalized and driven into poverty-level contract work.
Let’s not confuse the zeal to enroll students with the commitment to actually educate them.
Unless and until these issues are addressed honestly, and until our country’s leaders make a full-out concerted effort to fully repair these problems, I call on all parents and students, all high school counselors, all of us, to refuse and resist this call to push our students into a broken system, which will threaten them with broken lives.