Is Higher Education The Real Problem?

Clearly I’m an advocate for college, but more frequently than not, I also find myself questioning the entire institution of higher education. It’s not a new concept – I’ve had many a conversation and found myself arguing that college is in fact a divisive institution that simply keeps the haves where they are and the have nots put as well.

We live in a country where only 25% of people actually have college degrees, which is an alarmingly low number given how much coverage college gets in the media. The power we hold, the 25%, if you will, is enormous. Whether we recognize it or not, we can be considered and even hired for jobs we are completely unqualified to execute just because of our degree, we are eligible to make more than our non-degree counterparts despite more limited experience and in general, we are considerably more respected because of that degree.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I worked hard for my degree and I’m still paying for it (literally) and so I welcome the opportunities I have and at the same time, I would be remiss not to recognize and openly acknowledge, I got to college because of other people. Yes, I showed promise, as do many (most of which don’t actually earn a college degree), but simply put, I had access. My parents speak English, they are educated, they understand the value society places on education, they always understood that a college degree was the bridge for me professionally, financially and socially and so they pushed me, advocated for me, sent me to great schools, made sacrifices and ultimately made not going to college an impossibility. Teachers believed in me, but if I’m honest, it wasn’t just me, it was the potential my parents helped instill – it was because they spent more money than I can imagine on music and dance and sports, tutoring and the list goes on.

This is all to say, to gain access to the 25% takes significant resources. It’s a no brainer really. If you start out with resources it’s a whole lot easier than if you don’t. And while, I firmly believe in the American Dream (for some), I think we underestimate the barriers people face everyday on their paths to the 25% and these barriers are almost always based on class and/or race. I’ve heard the argument over and over again – work hard and you can succeed – someone always knows someone who did it. In fact, I know hundreds who have done it, but it’s neither easy nor realistic for many. And it’s for this simple reality, I constantly wonder if higher education is the problem. Despite matching or exceeding the intellectual capacity of those in the 25%, many qualified, bright and capable people will never join the club because of lack of resources, thus how can we in essence make a degree mandatory to earn a good living?

I would venture to argue it is primarily academia that says academia is the only way to achieve the qualities one develops earning a college degree, but I wonder if that’s a self-serving perspective. I strongly believe there are multiple paths for people to achieve what a college degree develops in people – some area of expertise in a particular field, ability to apply knowledge, ability to effectively communicate in writing and verbally, basic skills to navigate the professional world and self-confidence.

I’m of course interested in the solutions to close the educational gap. As a thriving member of the 25% club, I can vouch for the value of a college education both as an academic and social experience and in my utopia, everyone who wants to earn a college degree can do so. But, we are in no utopia. Perhaps some of the solutions are already right in front of us. Could completion of a City Year program or programs ever carry the same weight as a college degree? Or could the intelligence training some serviceman/woman receive earn them a degree? Or for people who must work full-time (and there are many), could the scope of their job include relevant coursework or training that mirrors college coursework? Or, will online degrees, which carry very little weight in some circles, ever gain the notoriety of traditional college degrees?

And believe it or not, it’s not just those without college degrees asking these questions. Despite how few people have bachelors degrees, many jobs now require masters degrees, leaving perfectly qualified people with years of work experience and college degrees unable to get positions because they lack yet another degree. Like many things in life, we have to invest to get a return, but at what cost?

I know many will argue these potential solutions make the college degree less elusive. That said, isn’t it true sometimes our success is based on another’s deficit? After all, that’s how people stand out from the crowd. But if we are ever going to break the cycle of lack of access to educational opportunities, we need to begin to think more creatively. Our current educational system is not only overloaded, but financially strapped and neither are sustainable to support the growing number of college bound students.

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