Monday’s Mtg: Is College Still the Answer?

I love this topic!  We beat some themes to death sometimes, but education policy is one of our few under-discussed issues.  Like everything else in our society tat we discuss, there have been huge changes to higher education in the United States in recent years.  Yet, our college system is increasingly criticized for being out-of-date and inadequate to the 21st century.

Is it?  Moreover, is college still the gateway to a better life –  and societal panacea – it was billed to be for six decades after WWII?  Many people believe we should switch public resources away from university and towards alternatives to college, like vocational education.  We could emulate the European system, reinvent our community colleges to better feed trained workers to local job markets, or let the private sector do it.  Others experts say college is still the answer to American prosperity, if only we stopped gutting public funding for it and made a few other changes (some rather substantial).  President Obama has proposed pretty large changes to higher education, including an 8-point plan to help every young person obtain another year of post-secondary college or vocational training.

I’m going to read a lot on this topic this weekend in preparation, and I hope you can do some, too.  But, my opening remarks will be brief on Monday.  I’ll just give some stats on who goes to college in this country and who doesn’t, and what happens to them when they get there.  Then, I’ll explain some of the big changes roiling higher education in recent years and highlight the reasons some cite for why our old paradigm of college-for-all may be archaic.  Then, we can discuss the many issues.



  1. Who goes to college in America and who does not?  Why?  Who graduates and who does not?  Why?
  2. What are the benefits and costs of college today?  Have they changed appreciably in recent years?
  3. What is your advice to the young people you meet?  What are they experiencing that informs this topic?
  4. What are the arguments used to claim that our college system is a poor fit for the 21st century economy and society?  What are the rebuttals?
  5. Should we beef up the alternatives to college, or try to change the colleges themselves?  Who is planning to do what to change the system?  What are Obama’s plans?  California’s?



Ack!  Increasingly, our post-secondary education system, the one that once was a model of democracy and class mobility, merely reinforces economic privilege.  How can we change that and still produce citizens with the job skills the 21st century economy needs?

I’m mainly going to read up on this, rather than lecture, this week.  I hope you all can find time to read some of this, too.


10 responses

  1. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    I’d like to introduce a different perspective:

    One-third of the people here in the US go to college, which is probably the highest rate in the world.

    Yet, if we judge from popular culture, political campaigns, etc. the general public is generally unenlightened, and seems, if anything, to be getting dumber and dumber.

    If this is the result of 100 years of (more or less) universal public education, what does this tell us?

    1. I’m reading some interesting numbers now. We rank 12th of 36 major countries in % of people age 25-34 with a 2- or 4-yr degree. Sure, this is because they’ve caught up to us. Yet, our college grad rates have not budged in 25 years – even though enrollment continues to climb. Ergo, huge numbers of young Americans are enrolling in colleges and never graduating. This is a function of high costs, the need among too many of them for remedial classes, job stresses, lack of a natl childcare policy, etc.

      The stereotype of the kid that enrolls in a four year college the Sept after HS graduation and earns a degree 4 yrs later (and w.o crushing student debt) is increasingly inaccurate.

  2. This is particulary timely, since David has a daughter who is a high school senior and in the throes of applying to college for next year.

  3. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    Could this possibly have something to do with Republican hostility to things like Pell grants?
    You can’t cut taxes and subsidize higher education at the same time ; it’s impossible

  4. College is the answer to what? Getting a good job, I assume. So what is needed to get a “good” job, one that pays well, has some security and is interesting?

    The requirements nowadays seem to be mostly mental abilities: creativity, flexibility to deal with the unexpected, ability to deal with complexity, such as people (especially when they are not being what we light-heartedly refer to as “rational”). Manual dexterity has historically been a route to some good jobs, but this seems to be going away. Same thing with jobs that are primarily based on rote learning some facts and methods: these are becoming increasingly automated.

    It seems to me that these most important skills are not being taught anywhere, though I think they are encouraged more at universities than anywhere else. If anything K-12 seems to be teaching this sort of thing even less than before, possibly because of the need to teach to the test, and these skills are not as readily testable as rote learning.

    Where I see universities being most useful in for jobs that require a combination of flexible thinking and a large dose of factual knowledge to be successful. But in the fastest-changing fields universities tend to lag behind state of the art. This is why people like Jobs, Wozniak and Gates were all dropouts: the things they needed to learn were not in any course, they had to be learned out in the real world.

    So I guess the bottom line is that universities need to be faster to adapt to a faster-changing world. The advantage they have is that they only have to look a few years ahead. K-12 schools have to look much further ahead to stay relevant.

  5. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    Yes, people like Jobs, Wozniak, and Gates may be paragons of technology. But are they really paragons of human beings?
    I think myself they might have benefitted greatly from a humanistic education.

    1. I agree that humanistic traits like emotional intelligence need to be taught much more, though I think this needs to be more in grade school than in universities. Also, I am not sure that it would have made a difference in many cases. From what I have read, Jobs and Gates followed the same path as many successful people: they became arrogant and less interested in what others think the more successful they became. This characteristic has not been recognized as a problem (at least among psychologists) until fairly recently, so it is not something that would have been taught in any school 40 or more years ago.

      While technology types get blamed for this more often, they are hardly the only ones who succumb to this. Successful businessmen and politicians do as well. According to the analysts I have read, Obama is following much the same pattern in this regard as “W” Bush. A more educational example would be Gov Schwarzenegger. Having been a body builder celebrity since he was young, an “A” list Hollywood actor, and then handily winning the first try in politics, it is no wonder that his arrogance was off the charts when he started out as governor. But was instructive is how he managed to control this after his proposals got shot down in the special election and his popularity started dropping. I attribute this to the awareness that he could lose his position in a recall election if he did not stay on the voters good side. After his missteps he did a good job of staying on the voters good side until he stopped trying to do so about six months before the end of his last term, when it was too late to be recalled. An object lesson in what it takes to keep those in power responsive to those they are supposed to serve.

  6. I’m a little puzzled. What evidence exists that Obama is becoming more “arrogant?” As self-righteous and smug arrogant as W? Really?

    Arnold aside, I wonder if recall elections – that tend to attract a very small voter turnout – really keep politicians responsive to voters, or whether it mainly makes them even more afraid to cross special interests that can organize recall campaigns. Still, I do like the recall option in a democracy. My worry, though, is that recalls used to be rare because they were only used in extraordinary circumstances, like blatant corruption or bribery, and now they might turn into just another routine partisan tool. This is pretty much the reason Gray Davis was recalled. Was the recall intended to remove unpopular politicians? Don’t we have elections for that?

    1. Emotion-laden words like “arrogant” and “smug” aside, what I read regarding Bush/Obama comparison claimed that they both had the same reduction over time in the number and variety of outside views/opinions they were willing to listen to. Personally, I have no idea whether it is true, but it sounded like an honest nonpartisan commentary.

      I think you are correct about the intended purpose of recall elections. But I see them differently. Ideally, they act as a policing of the behavior of the top elected officials. Instead of having to make the electorate happy once every few years, it has to be a continuous thing. What do you think highway traffic would be like if the police only patrolled at predictable times once a day or once a week? Being able to put a stop to bad behavior at any time is a much better motivator. Certainly, forcing a recall election can be politically motivated, but it would be just a waste of money to do so if the voters were not happy. Gray Davis’ popularity rating, for example, was pretty abysmal even before the recall election started. Had he stayed on the public’s good side I doubt that the election would have happened or turned out the way it did.

  7. James H. Zimmerman | Reply

    But Gray Davis in fact had just won reelection! The recall was good for Schwarzenegger because he didn’t have to win a Republican primary, which would have been difficult.
    And was Schwarzenegger really an improvement on Davis?

    The gov. of Wisconsin just defeated a recall attempt. Apparently many voters disapproved of Walker’s policies, but thought he should be able to serve out his term.

    In short, recall elections really are not the answer to our political problems.

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