Who Should Pay for Higher Education?

Here’s the question:  who should pay for a kid’s higher education?

The default answer – the public – is well-settled at the elementary and secondary levels as each local school district is empowered to levy property taxes to pay for school.  The practice was allowed under the philosophy that it was in the public interest to educate the youngsters so that they could take a functioning role in society and not be a burden.  Some may argue about the technicalities – whether they were trained to be cogs in an industrial state and etc – but the premise remains, that they should have a basic level of knowledge in order to survive.  But what happens after they reach an educational level at which they supposedly have the requisite tools and skills to support themselves?  This isn’t an effort to take any particular stance – I’m still uncertain in my own mind – but is rather an attempt to help myself work through the issues.

The first issue is, what exactly is the point of a higher education?  If tens of thousands of dollars are spent on a degree, shouldn’t you be certain why you’re spending it?  There’s a fascinating chart in Time Magazine’s article on college, College is Dead, Long Live College, that fundamentally displays the disconnect between the educational establishment and the general public.  A poll was taken of adults in the general population and college leaders asking each what is the most important reason to go to college?  The responses are startling in their disconnect and awareness of what’s occurring in our society.  Fully 54% of the general population adults believe that the two principal functions of college are to gain skills/knowledge for a career and increase earnings power.  Fully 55% of the college leaders believe that the primary reasons for college are to learn to think critically and to become an informed citizen in a global society (although to be fair, 21% of the college establishment believes that earnings is a primary role as well).  Nevertheless, there is a massive disconnect between the product designed by the establishment and the product desired by the populace, yet the populace is being forced to purchase the product by their employer.  It’s akin to knowing that you need a minivan for two kids but have to pay for a convertible because your employer mandates it.  So what if it doesn’t work for you, buy it or else find a new job.

The notion of teaching critical thinking itself demonstrates that the college establishment is out of touch with the reality of today’s millenial generation.  While critical thinking is crucial to real success, let alone an appreciation of what life can offer, it’s become a lost art for many high school students and graduates.  Critical thinking requires a sustained effort at questioning and then evaluating the information to determine what’s actually happening.  It also involves a willingness to learn about the world around you and explore connections between seemingly disparate elements to get to the true reality, not just the virtual.  But the educational establishment is finding that the capacity to think critically amongst this generation is lacking; the article references Academically Adrift, which reported research showing that three full semesters of college had "…a "barely noticeable" impact on critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills…"(per Time).  As Jethro Gibbs would say, gee, ya think DiNozzo?  Starting decades ago, we parents began to permit our children an increasing amount of time on screens of one kind or another until today’s level at which the average teen spends more than six hours daily immersed in electronics.  MTV, Youtube, Facebook and other forms of social media distract them from the real world and the constant flow of imagery and gab lends nothing to the development of critical thought.  If you want an eye-opening view of the world at least partially inhabited by many high school and college-aged kids, try reading Texts From Last Night for a glimpse that’s simultaneously hilarious, mind-bending and ultimately depressing.  American society today is predicated upon avoiding any critical thought whatsoever, so good luck to the college establishment.

The second issue is the sea change in our attitudes towards the role of government since Reagan’s (in)famous comment that "government is the problem, not the solution."  That comment encapsulates the entire pendulum swing that’s moved towards privatization of many formerly public services, including the prison system and now education.   Even though a significant portion of the population was never able to attend college until the mid to latter twentieth century, our nation deemed education to be of value; we passed legislation that permitted the creation of colleges and universities – in the midst of the civil war – and then greased the skids to higher education for the masses with the passage of the GI Bill.  This belief in the practical and moral value of education led to increased spending through the "golden age" of the American economy, before the onset of these present structural changes.  But Reagan’s efforts, like those of his fans such as Limbaugh and Hannity, have kept proponents of the public sector on the defensive since then.  What is the value of government and what is the role of government?  Apart from defense – and with private security like Blackwater, even that – what do we need the government for when the private sector can handle things nicely?  And it’s been that way with higher education as states attempt desperately to balance their budgets.  With ongoing commentary about wasteful spending and the need for individuals to take care of themselves, the politicians have taken a goodly share of funds from education, leaving it to the students and families to make up the difference. 

Apart from decreasing funding for public education, the private sector has also moved into education in a major way with the creation of for-profit universities and on one level, that’s fine.  But why do they believe that they can make money at all when there are so many other institutions of higher learning?  If you look at the majority of the degree programs offered by the for-profits, they’ve read the cards well and moved nimbly into the skills areas for which they perceive demand, such as electronics, less technical health care training and of course, law enforcement certification programs.  There are two year programs galore that meet the population’s push for jobs-related education.  But one of the other reasons that the for-profits have gained ground has been the availability of relatively lower interest student loans through the past decade, courtesy of the federal government.  With flush times, the money was available for education and the for-profits – Phoenix, Kaplan, etc – readily sold their programs to an increasingly larger number of people.  But the rear-view mirror shows something else.  The completion rate of the for-profits lagged far behind that of the non-profit institutions, only 32% versus 55% for all institutions, as far more students leave with unfinished degrees than their non-profit counterparts.  Likewise, there have been significant fines for student recruitment practices as bonuses for admissions counselors were akin to the commissions for shady mortgage brokers who were paid for the number of loans that they were able to write.  So once again, the availability of cheap money coupled with minimal oversight led to a corrupted educational process that served few well.

The third issue is that more than a few parents have done as little critical thinking as their offspring.  Folks likewise bought into the past several decades of consumerist behavior and again, fueled by cheap money and a persistent barrage to consume, found themselves suddenly unprepared for the loss of living wage jobs for themselves, let alone their kids.  Hearing the data trumpeted again and again that the degree was the entry to the new "knowledge based economy" – honestly, what economy isn’t? – they simply panicked and pushed the kids through the institutions while piling on the debt for themselves and then, the kids.  It’s now apparent that the adults are unprepared for any meaningful retirement and are increasingly being pushed to no-benefit part-time employment; even when the opportunity existed to save for college, it didn’t happen and it’s now, for the larger part, too late.  

So how do we recreate or rejigger the system so that it again works?  There are obviously no easy, one-size fits all solutions.  The macro solutions are about reordering our priorities and determining where we place both them and our money.  What do we owe our youngsters and in turn, what are our expectations of them?  I do believe that another aspect is that if government is going to be involved in the higher education process, then it has to do more than provide loans which have proven to create moral hazards.  We’ve decided, in more truly dire circumstances, to support education and I see no reason that we shouldn’t reverse ourselves and put our backing there again. 

On a personal level then, parents have to step up in a non-financial sense.  The present reality is that traditional higher education is increasingly beyond the means of many American families.  But there should be no reason that a kid should say that she didn’t know what it would cost to repay the loans or that she couldn’t find meaningful employment with a Western Civ degree and it’s up to us as parents to impart that information.  We must pay greater attention to the world around us and plan and act accordingly.  We must pay greater attention to our children and help them ascertain their skills and talents in a meaningful fashion.  We must be willing to help teach them think critically, first and foremost by kicking their butts off of the electronics and back into the real world, even if it means that we lose more of our own increasingly rare free time. 



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