I’ve worked at a college and in higher education for almost three years now, and I find myself torn between two beliefs: there are many narratives of success and people should go to college. The former is based on the notion that there are as many ways to be successful as there are people and, of course, there are an endless number of definitions of success. The latter is a byproduct of how my parents raised me to believe that education was the most direct path to success which, for them, meant a stable career, financial independence, and starting a family.
I work with new students, fresh-faced 18-year-olds usually, all the time. For the most part, these students firmly believe that their educational choices will yield some desired benefit: a good job, a nice house, lots of money, and so on. They remind me of myself at 18. They know that a college degree will likely yield incredible financial returns compared to non-degree holders. This is in spite of the lost wages a college student might have earned if he or she had joined the workforce immediately out of high school. What I hear from current 18-year-olds is what I heard from myself at that age. They might be chasing a particular dream (to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, or some other noble career), but they’re also running away from something.
My motivation in college was two-fold, shaped by desire and fear. When I was a senior, I was deathly afraid of becoming a barista. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a barista, but it’s only in retrospect that I realize what I was truly afraid of: being a stereotype. I’m a former English major, and I was afraid that I’d become like the characters I saw on TV, afraid of becoming the well-read, well-spoken, jaded person making someone’s skinny, extra hot, caramel macchiato. I was as much driven by my fear of serving coffee as I was by my desire to be a professional writer. For current students, the fears are similar. They want a college degree in order to not work in fast food, retail, a call center, or any number of other stressful or unrewarding work environments. They don’t, and I didn’t, see a job in fast food as a sign of responsibility but as a sign of failure.
However, there are many narratives of success and the stereotype of the guy flipping burgers out of high school as some kind of failure is unfair and harmful. It also keeps people who legitimately enjoy making food from feeling proud and dignified of the work they do. Society as a whole sees holding a low-wage or blue collar job as a sign of many negative things: laziness, stupidity, apathy, etc. I would’ve thought having a job at all would indicate that one is not lazy, though. Additionally, one need not have a college degree necessarily in order to earn a high salary, as noted in “High wages after high school–without a bachelor’s degree.” So, if someone graduates from high school and all they want is a stable wage, there are pathways to reach that goal that may be less costly and time consuming than attending a four-year college.
Who, then, should go to college?
The question is simple, but the answers are complicated as I go back and forth between my two core beliefs. I want to say that anyone who wants to attend college should be able to regardless of financial limitations. Access to an institution should not be controlled by cost alone. If a high-performing student from Houston’s third ward does well in school and wants to push himself further at an Ivy League school, he ought to have that opportunity regardless of how much money his parents make. This seems clear to me. However, what about a weak-performing student? Or a mediocre one? Or one with a 1.5 GPA? If people want a post-secondary education, I think they should have the access and means to attain it. However, I also think students should examine why they want to attend college in the first place. Do they want a transformative experience where they can learn more about themselves and the world around them? Do they want increased exposure to the world’s problems and to help develop possible solutions? Or do they want something more concrete? Do they want a large paycheck in order to bankroll a certain kind of lifestyle? Are they focused on getting a certain kind of job in order to get that paycheck?
College is not for everyone and college is not well-suited for everyone. To say that everyone should go to college is simultaneously elitist and ignorant. It ignores the differences between people and the benefits of experiences other than college. The phrase itself is anathema to people who work in a higher education setting, particularly a public college or university, because those institutions are funded in no small part by tuition and fees collected from students. Some universities are highly selective, accepting no more than a certain percentage of applicants. Other universities do not have the luxury of exclusivity. If these schools want to remain in the black, they must figure out ways to increase enrollment from year to year. This may involve any number of schemes including offering more online courses in order to reach distance learners, maintaining a low tuition rate, or lowering admissions standards. The last one can be problematic. Colleges may end up accepting students they know will not do well in a higher education environment, so they develop ways to “help” the student. In many cases, this involves remedial courses, which don’t typically yield college credit, and delays a student’s beginning of a degree program. In this way, a student ends up spending more money for classes that don’t get them any closer to degree completion. Combine this with the negative stigma often attached to remedial courses and high rates of attrition can result.
The financial benefits of college alone may be enough for some people to apply and attend college, which is only practical. Having a stable career creates a foundation for a stable life, something most people want. However, if one is just chasing paper, there are ways to get there that don’t necessarily require being out of the workforce for four to six years. There are a variety of reasons to go to college and each reason is as valid as the next, but the costs of higher education are increasing and there doesn’t seem to be any signs of slowing down. Attending college because of the promise of potential earnings sometime in the future may not be a good reason for too much longer.
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