There have been two battle cries in our current election cycle, “Free College!” And “The System is Rigged!” My analysis is that the second slogan is actually true (but not in the way it thrown around) which makes the first plan not all that useful. To understand why I think free college is not a game changer you need to understand what education is really about.
Yes education is certainly about acquiring certain skills and knowledge and most schools are pretty good at that (believe it or not!) But education also has another function, and that is a social sorting function and this is the part that is certainly rigged.
You could, if you wanted to head over to EdX and get yourself a Harvard education. You really can, if a Harvard education is about getting information. But as you will quickly find out, knowing as much as a Harvard graduate is not the same as being a Harvard graduate. Granted there are a few things you won’t get in your online Harvard education, things like mentorships, but ultimately actually going to Harvard actually means that you are the kind of person who can go to Harvard which means you can get the kinds of jobs that the kinds of people who go to Harvard get. It is pretty much that circular.
Which is not to say that Harvard folks are not smart. They certainly are. But we have a real problem in defining what “intelligence” really is. How it is defined now, we know that socio-economic status is very closely correlated with both IQ and school achievement. But again, the process could well be circular.
So, we know that kids raised in a rich environment are more intelligent. Most likely it is that the environment stimulates brain development and a more developed brain is smarter. House full of books, trips to zoos, museums and Europe — all stimulate brain development and make people “smarter.” But wait there is more.
Psychologists like to say that “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure.” And what they really mean is that how and what you measure in turn defines what intelligence is, or at least what it is perceived to be. Let me give you an example with this little thought experiment.
So, you are an intelligent reader, perhaps college educated, certainly widely read and schooled in critical thinking. Then you should have no problem whatsoever with this short little “college entrance exam.” You don’t have to actually do it, just look at it and you will immediately know what kind of score you would probably get on this. OK, go “take the test” and come back. I’ll wait.
How did you do? I know for myself that my score on the test would be a big fat zero. Imagine that the skills and knowledge measured by this test were the ticket to the upper middle class. Upper middle class homes would all be conservatories of music. Here is another thing to consider, especially if you are one of the few that aced this exam. If you aced the exam, you get to go to a “selective” college which is great for you! Congratulations!
Oh, but wait, there is some “affirmative action” program that lets in kids that didn’t quite have access to your musical education. Unfair right? You have much better qualifications than they do! Because, of course, this test measures musical ability perfectly. Or does it?
Before you answer, consider a few people who know a thing or two about music, but could not pass this test, starting with the Beatles. Neither Lennon nor McCartney could read music. Are people who passed this test really musically “smarter?” I think the same can be said of SATs and other academic tests.
My point? What we call “smart” and what actually is “smart” certainly overlap, but are not necessarily the same thing. An article in the Atlantic on the subject of free college points out that the “selective” California schools (UCLA, UC Berkeley and UCSD) are full of kids who got near perfect SAT scores and have near perfect grades. Yes, I am sure they are smart. I am also sure that their upper middle class parents exposed them not only to zoos and museums, but also professional journals and SAT prep courses.
Another example, the students at the technical college often times struggle with writing academic papers in APA format. They have not had much exposure to academic writing, if any. Children of doctors and lawyers surely get exposed to academic writing style in high school, and surely their parents make sure they do it well as they probably have professional journals around the house. Writing papers in college is a breeze. Which is why almost every kid at UCLA is getting A’s.
Excuse me while I digress, but if college is supposed to be a meritocracy shouldn’t the best of the best of those kids get A’s and the rest B’s and C’s. Oh, there would be a riot if they did that, never mind. Back to the article in progress.
So, upper middle class kids get A’s in “selective” colleges, which allows them to get into “selective” professional schools (medical and legal) or get the best internships and jobs. And then they take their kids to zoos, museums, and Europe and the cycle continues.
Let’s face it, in our society a college degree is really a filter. It separates a person from the “common riff-raff.” If you don’t believe me, do a Google image search on “College students on the quad.” Looks like Paul Ryan’s interns. Lower college tuition is not going to change this, people will simply find another filter.
For many people, college is not really about getting smart, it is simply a marker that they travel in those circles. Free college tuition is not going to help this. If anything it will push the price of private colleges even higher.
This does not mean that there is not anything we can do. We certainly need to strengthen funding for our public colleges to make them as accessible as possible. We need to have college admission systems that value diversity, not only culturally or ethnically, but also in how we assess “intelligence.” SAT tests were supposed to bring in a pure meritocracy. High scores supposedly were indicative of pure ability. It was originally said that you “could not study” for them. That has turned out not to be true. And they only measure a small slice of what might be called “intelligence.” So, we can do better.
We can also do better in providing education that matches real needs in the job market. Everyone talks about how we need so many more people who can write computer code. Yet it is not taught widely in secondary schools. We could do better. We can test for “intelligence” better as well and understand it better in society.
Unfortunately there is no way to “unrig” the educational system. There is no such thing as a pure meritocracy (except maybe Major League Baseball, and I am not even sure about that) and social advantage is always going to be a factor. The winners of today’s economic system will want to hire people such as themselves, who will come from families like their own. And it will probably also always be true that kids from well off families will always be “smarter” because their advantages in their home environment.
A fully funded Head Start system is probably the best way to “unrig” the educational system, not free college.