College Is Not the Goal
One great impediment to education reform is a false notion about the American Dream—and really, about democracy itself. For many Americans, college epitomizes the promise of democratic citizenship. The narrative can be reduced to a basic syllogism: In a country that values social and political equality, you should be able to make a life for yourself and participate in the project of self-government. A college education is both the ticket to a well-paying job and an indispensable training ground for self-government. Ergo, everyone who wants to better themselves should go to college.
Up until the election of Donald Trump, presidents of both parties embraced what Michael Sandel calls the “rhetoric of rising,” the notion that anyone who works hard can and should go as far as their dreams will take them. In practice, this rhetoric tied the American Dream to a narrow form of making a life for oneself, placing an outsized emphasis on educational attainment. This vision of upward mobility affords little honor to those who don’t go to college. President Obama articulated it most consistently. In one speech during his presidency, he asked an audience of middle schoolers, “How many students here expect to go to college?” He then turned to the adults and said, “I expect all of them to raise their hand.”
Many charter schools—the reform tool of choice for many conservatives—echo that aspiration and embrace the goal of college-for-all. The LEAD Public Schools charter school network in Nashville notes that “our mission continues to prepare EVERY student in our care with the skills and knowledge they need to be ready for college and ready for life.” IDEA Public Schools, a network in Texas, is even more explicit: “We believe ensuring college success for 100% of our students is the best way to help them succeed in life.” The mission of Green Dot Public Schools, a network with schools in California, Tennessee, and Texas, is to prepare every student for “college, leadership, and life.” The list goes on, reflecting a deeply ingrained assumption that college is the broadly desirable end goal of education.
Serious education reformers ought to advocate the opposite. Far fewer people should feel the need to go to college. Our conception of success should be decoupled from college. Policymakers should use every tool at their disposal to de-emphasize the college degree. Because of our longstanding and ostensibly democratic conception of college, this might sound like an elitist agenda. In reality, busting the college monopoly better fits the needs of most Americans, and it better comports with the goal of self-rule.
College is a good option for some, but using it as a stand-in for success obscures the real purpose of public education, which is two-fold. First, public education ought to prepare young people for citizenship in a free society. This is the impetus for the liberal arts: Put simply, freedom must be learned. Second, public education should empower citizens to become contributing members of their communities, most obviously by preparing them for productive and well-paying jobs. Of course, for some, higher education serves these two basic roles. College prepares students for jobs that require a high level of expertise. It also provides a deeper civic education, preparing students for leadership, again through the liberal arts. The elite—those who lead our public and private institutions—will always be with us, and college will likely always serve as their primary training ground.
It’s not hard to see how those same elites came to presume that college should be the logical next step for every student. But the college-for-all paradigm nevertheless undermines the aims of public education, properly understood.
College is often a clumsy form of career preparation, and our emphasis on it causes two seemingly opposite afflictions. Those without college credentials are left out of jobs for which they are perfectly suitable, while at the same time, many with college degrees are underemployed. The obsession with college also encourages an intense focus on the narrow criteria for admissions, which damages basic liberal education, encouraging students to see what they learn as a mere means for climbing another step on the ladder.
College-for-all even detracts from that most basic mission of the university: the pursuit of truth. Universities’ effective monopoly over credentialing gives them extraordinary power, and thus leeway to evade scrutiny for violating academic freedom, embrace overtly political goals, and chase progressive fads. And because college is treated as a vague and universal rite of passage, it has become, in effect, all things to all people. For most people on college campuses, that academic mission, the pursuit of truth, simply doesn’t register as a primary goal.
Contrary to its egalitarian trappings, the college-for-all paradigm entails something of an elitist assumption—namely, that everyone should strive to be a member of the professional managerial class. In its condensed form, the basic message is that, to participate in civic and economic life, you really need a specialized credential. I suspect that few would actually say the quiet part out loud, but our educational policy often implies as much. This is fundamentally technocratic, not democratic, and we should challenge it both in word and policy.
For this purpose, policymakers have many tools at their disposal. They should seek to direct a portion of the money currently funding higher education instead toward non-college pathways to the workforce. They should follow several states in ending bachelor’s degree requirements for state employees—and, as a more radical step, they should consider banning employers from using the bachelor’s degree as a minimum job requirement. Likewise, they should encourage the use of apprenticeships as an alternative to degree-based professional certification.
None of this means that we should abandon higher education. With universities around the country embracing explicitly progressive political goals, some conservatives flirt with the idea of letting the system burn—or, indeed, burning it down. This is both unworkable and undesirable. We need engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other highly trained professionals. For them, higher education of the kind uniquely offered in the college classroom, and some form of credentialing, is necessary.
Further, regardless of whether conservatives lend their support, higher education will continue to serve its elite-forming function. Conservatives should think about ways to shape this kind of education. Some states have established schools devoted to open discourse and civic education at their flagship universities, which is a promising experiment that should be refined and replicated, with the goal of creating elites with local attachments, rather than mere “global citizens.” The pursuit of truth, after all, is vital for a well-functioning society. While lawmakers work to bolster non-college pathways, they should also think creatively about how to empower aspiring scientists and scholars who value academic freedom, and even encourage them to go into academia.
Lasting education reform is a monumental task—but also a vital one. We will know we are succeeding not when college attendance has become universal, but rather when it has become entirely unnecessary.