College For All, Or Just For Some?

Judith Sebesta

College For All, Or Just For Some?
Too high a price? D.C. interns urge the Senate to act on “Smarter Solutions for Students Act," June, 2013. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

All too often, Americans see a college degree as the ultimate insurance policy for success. But we need look to a far wider range of policy and educational tools to help those without a degree.

In the film “Admission,” Tina Fey’s Princeton University admissions officer, Portia Nathan, is reluctantly recruiting at a backwoods alternative New England high school. But her canned, patronizing speech, grounded in the assumption that her audience has a burning interest in gaining entrance to the university, is met with surprising resistance. Her usual rhetorical question “Do you want to know the secret to getting into Princeton?” is met with stony silence. A student then retorts: “I’ll tell you what I’d like to know. Why should I apply to an elitist institution with a history of anti-black, anti-gay, and anti-female oppression?”

Taken aback, Portia responds, “I reject that stereotype!” One student then interrupts: “Speaking of rejection, don’t you reject 99.9% of your applicants?” while another asks, “Don’t people just need a college degree if they want to pursue the societally approved definition of success?” Other students chime in, claiming that they want to be educating themselves to be better citizens of the world, to “leave the planet better than we found it.” Exasperated, Portia declares, “Okay! Good luck with that,” and storms out.

While the film is a comedy, it asks a very serious question: Is a college degree necessary to achieve success? What is the value of a college degree? I have been very close to these debates, having worked for 16 years in higher education as both a faculty member and administrator — and a cheerleader for access, retention, and completion. I have told students fervently that they will never regret pursuing higher education; I have led recruitment efforts and engaged in the same kinds of activities as Portia Nathan did, all the while assuming that any prospective students to whom I talked can and should overcome any barriers to that pursuit.

But I began reconsidering my beliefs during a recent stint working at a state agency that touts “College for All” and “Closing the Gaps.” In fact, I now question the wisdom of pouring resources into programs that attempt to place a diploma in the hands of everyone. Although I still passionately believe in providing affordable access to quality education for anyone who seeks it, I am no longer certain that “college for all” is in the best interest of the public, whether it is two- or four-year degrees. Rather, more public dollars should be directed to improving the lives of those who eschew college for other paths, whether it is for practical, personal, or academic reasons.

How did my views change? I recently served as a program director specializing in distance learning for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). My former colleagues there are, for the most part, dedicated to the success of Texas college students and improving the lives of the states’ citizens. Much of the work in which I engaged was regulatory – approving or denying new degree program proposals from public universities and health-related institutions, and making recommendations regarding low-producing programs. But I also enthusiastically provided support for two grant-funded projects aimed at “closing the gaps” between Texans with degrees and those without, particularly low-income minority students (see THECB Closing the Gaps): the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program and GenTX/GradTX, which are funded by Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) and Department of Education College Access Challenge (CACG) grants, respectively.

These laudable programs are designed to increase access to higher education and encourage persistence and degree completion. Texas, which was awarded an $11,845,689 CACG grant in 2010, is not alone in these initiatives; that same year the US Department of Education awarded California $15,038,830 and New York $7,601,629 for similar programs, among other states. NGLC has awarded millions in grants supporting college completion programs to universities in states from New York to Hawaii. Altogether, agencies like the THECB, West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, and the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education — not to mention public and private, non-profit and for-profit institutions of higher education — devote extensive resources to college recruitment, retention, and degree completion.

My point is not that these important initiatives should be abandoned entirely. But there is a case for redirecting some of these resources to programs that study, explore, and support alternatives to college degrees as a route to success – in the myriad ways that can be defined these days, particularly given the undermining of the American dream in the 21st century.

Resistance to alternative thinking comes in various forms, but it stems from the fact that most of those who control change in higher education themselves possess college degrees. Since they chose that path, they inevitably promote it as the best route to success, which is increasingly defined by employability and earnings. And if we look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the benefits of education, we do see striking numbers. In 2012, high school dropouts had an unemployment rate of 12.4%, compared to 4.5% for college-degree holders, while the gap in median weekly earnings was $471 versus $1,066.

But the fact remains that rising tuition costs are often not followed by increasing quality of life and better employment, and as a result, many Americans are losing their trust in our system of higher education. As Jean Johnson argued in a 2012 brief for the National Issues Forums Institute, which outlines the benefits and trade-offs in answering the question of how higher education can help create a better society: “Many Americans … say employers too often demand college degrees for jobs that really don’t require them. … In the past, if you put in the time, effort, and money to get a degree, you were almost assured of a sound economic future. Too often, that’s no longer true.”

The primary solution espoused by lawmakers, policymakers and administrators, is to transform or disrupt higher education from within. There is nothing wrong with that approach, but it is not a total solution. We also need to consider alternatives outside of higher education, even beyond existing vocational training, which tends to ignore the importance of the liberal arts and humanities.

So what else is out there? Dale J. Stephens has created UnCollege, the self-professed “social movement changing the notion that college is the only path to success.” His approach of “unschooling” is essentially self-directed learning. UnCollege promotes a “gap year” in which 18-to-28 year-olds create their own path to learning and become educational hackers, or “hackademics.” I heard Stephens, the “Chief Educational Deviant” of UnCollege, speak at SXSWedu in Austin in March, and applauded his efforts to think outside the box. But a “movement” that costs $14,000-$15,000 a year to join hardly seems like the solution to a costly degree. And ultimately, it still comes close to the rather traditional notion of the “gap year” that some students take before entering college.

This is just one example in a recent spate of alternative paths to advanced education, whether that path leads to delaying college entrance, or to the acquisition of an actual degree or equivalent credentials. Much attention has been paid over the past year to competency-based education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as more cost-effective, flexible means to completing a degree. Some institutions like Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University have stepped up to the plate on competency-based education, while elite private and large research public universities have expanded their efforts to build up MOOCs, albeit with some controversy.

I like these explorations outside of a box, and I find particularly compelling the philosophy behind competency-based learning – time is variable, while learning is fixed, as opposed to the fixed time/variable learning of the traditional semester-based course. In his recent speech on education, President Obama added fuel to this fire as he advocated increased accountability measures and low-cost alternatives to traditional degrees.

In short, consensus is growing that the current system is unsustainable. But what if we go even further and admit that a college degree is not for everyone, and perhaps more provocative, that it is acceptable and in some cases even desirable to forgo a college degree? For this notion to be acceptable, we must change our views on the value of the non-degree and non-degreed individuals.

Recently, I had a seminal moment that challenged my assumption that all things being equal, everyone would want to pursue higher education if they could. It occurred as I was working at the THECB, when I observed focus groups conducted by a marketing firm that was assessing how to reach adult learners who had “stepped out” of college. There were the usual suggestions on how to reach them (e.g., billboards, internet, TV/radio ads, public service announcements). But what was surprising was how many of these targeted adults did not want to be reached. Time and again, I listened to diverse participants talk about how they lacked interest in obtaining the degree and how happy they were with their current career. And when they did express desire in finishing college, it was not for reasons of career advancement, which many felt they had done or could do without the degree. It was to counter the societal or familial stigma of not having a degree, or to be a better example to their children.

The question, then, is this: what if we could do away with this stigma by offering better resources and support for those who choose the non-degree path? A good start would be to strengthen and respect jobs and careers that do not require a degree; helping those in low-paying work; boosting minimum wage; shoring up subsidized or rent-controlled housing; and ensuring basic benefits like healthcare and sick pay. If we can accept the fact that college is not for everyone – an assumption in fact still held across the world, even in the wealthiest, most productive societies – we have to take bold action to ensure that the working class enjoys the basic social protections that would otherwise come with a white-collar job.

Instead of focusing on this reality, we are seeing a false debate between those who argue that education is first and foremost for workforce preparation, and those who call for a revival of the liberal arts. We can do both. More support of continuing and community education programs would help, as would abandoning the current focus in secondary education on testing in favor of more time spent on arts, literature, philosophy, languages, history, and the social sciences.

We also need to provide the resources to extend into K-12 and throughout the larger community the definition of what it means to be an educated person. An eloquent case was outlined by Anne Colby and William Sullivan in “Strengthening the Foundations of Students’ Excellence, Integrity and Social Contribution” (“Liberal Education” Winter 2009). They argue that we need to help students learn to work hard and strive to do their best; cultivate personal and academic integrity; and contribute to the larger community – local, national, and global. Furthermore, they should take other people’s ideas and perspectives seriously and develop the practice of ethical and moral reasoning. But these goals should not be the responsibility primarily of higher education. Beyond K-12 and continuing and community education, these can also be attained through civil and military service.

I will close with a recent example close to home. Last week, I ordered take out at a “fast-casual” restaurant chain offering a wide array of Asian dishes. As I waited, I sat at a bar that offered a full view of workers packaging the food that came out of the kitchen. I could see my order arrive at the pass-through window and watched a young man meticulously box and bag everything. He checked and double-checked the hanging order ticket while he sprinkled chopped green onions on my entrée, found the correct sauce cups, bagged wonton strips for the soup, and inserted the requisite fortune cookie into the bag. Fortunately, I was not in a hurry, and I watched, fascinated by the care with which he prepared the food for carry out. When he handed the bags to me, I thanked him for the job well done. He looked at me like I had two heads, shrugged his shoulders, and turned to complete the next order.

Somewhat deflated, I was set upon thinking about the conundrum that eventually led to this essay. Do we have to accept the argument that our capitalist society would break down without non-degreed workers engaging in so-called “unskilled” labor, and that a hierarchy of haves and have-nots is inevitable? Or do we dare take a more “utopian” perspective that we can have both degreed and non-degreed workers co-existing in a less stratified and more equitable economy? In its classical definition, “utopia” in means “no place,” but I reject that meaning and choose instead a definition as “good place.” We can reach that good place by reimagining the current educational system. Indeed, we must — it is broken anyway. We need to repair it by recognizing once and for all that college is not for everyone — and that is alright, in spite of the assumptions of the Portia Nathans of the world.


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About The Author:

Judith Sebesta is a writer, educator, and performer based in Austin, TX. She was a professor at Lamar University, University of Missouri, University of Arizona, and University of Evansville. She blogs at HigherEduphoria.