According to Salon.com, plank number one in Bernie Sanders’ presidential platform is a plan to provide free college tuition at four-year public colleges and universities, funded by a tax on Wall Street stock transactions. I think overall that this would be a great thing, a great investment in America’s future, and an entirely appropriate use of government funds. That said, however, I have some reservations about whether this would really do as much good as we might hope.
I loved college. I had a great time there, and I got a lot out of it. And yet, looking back, what did it really contribute to my life and to society? I graduated with a degree in teaching French at the high school level; I actually made a career out of my self-taught computer skills. I studied history, organic chemistry, oil painting, folk dancing, stage makeup, educational psychology, and a bunch of other topics I have rarely, if ever, resorted to again. If I had to do it over, I’d undoubtedly pick the same courses more or less. But a lot of the material was almost more like entertainment than practical life skills. I got a broad education, and feel the better for it, but perhaps there might be a better way?
What I’m trying to say—and it’s hard for me because I’m a very pro-science, pro-education liberal—is that I question the value of a college education. Certainly for some combinations of professions and students, it’s ideal. Research-oriented professions, no question, college is the place to be. Or computer sciences: is there any sight more thrilling than a lab full of gleaming computer consoles?
And yet, as a manager interviewing candidates for computer programming jobs, I’ve learned to distrust GPA’s and college transcripts. I’ve had high school grads with a Linux box in their basement who could program rings around honors grads with masters degrees. Don’t tell me what you’ve studied, tell me what you’ve done.
For me, college was not just a great learning (and social) experience, it was a way to put off leaving the educational system and striking out on my own as an independent adult. It was, in fact, a strategy for remaining dependent and putting off difficult and risky decisions about what I was going to do with my life. I think a lot of my peers were in the same boat.
And then the time came when I did graduate, and guess what? No jobs. There’s a disconnect between what kids are interested in studying, and who businesses are interested in hiring, even apart from the economic factors and normal market variations. Certainly, if you’re going to graduate with a degree that won’t get you a job, it’s better to have minimal college debt than crushing student loans to pay off. But still, what’s the point in being one of the highly-trained jobless?
So while I think Bernie is addressing one of the real pain points in our current society, it’s not as solid a solution as I’d like. College is a great way to prepare for the kind of professions that fit nicely into a college environment, but it’s not one-size-fits-all. There are a lot of professions that don’t need four years of academic preparation, or even strictly academic preparation at all. And likewise, there is a significant portion of the population that doesn’t do too well in academic settings, and for whom academia is just an exercise in frustration and humiliation.
We need tuition-free college education, but we need effective and productive alternatives to college as well, for all those careers and potential students that just aren’t a good fit for the campus setting. Maybe we should go back and work on the old apprenticeship system, and try to find a way to make it work without abusing apprentices. Maybe we could replace for-profit tuition mills with actual industry-sponsored and directed trade schools designed to build the exact labor force business really needs. Definitely we should make it easier for people to acquire individual college-level training courses outside of a traditional 4-year program—free tuition would be a great asset to Continuing Ed programs as well.
Just some of my thoughts on an early Wednesday morning. What do you all think?