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When College Isn't Worth It: Obama's Affordability Plan and the Value of a Bachelor's Degree

I must be feeling controversial, because I'm about to start trouble early on a Wednesday morning: When, at the end of last week, President Obama proposed a new college rating system that would hold colleges accountable for affordability, and in tandem, for enrolling greater numbers of low-income students, I sighed with frustration. This is not because I disagree with the president that college has become unaffordable to all but a small percentage of extremely affluent applicants, or that something must be done to rein in stratospheric tuition costs at American universities--whose growth has far surpassed wage increases over any given time period--which saddle new graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in debt before they are even gainfully employed.

Rather, my quibble with the new plan is that it does nothing to dislodge the university system's hegemony over the employment market, such that the price of entry to most professions will continue to be a bachelor's degree. And herein lies the fallacy: Not everyone should go to college (irrespective of its affordability to a given candidate), especially not directly out of high school, and not every profession should require a bachelor's degree to begin climbing the professional ladder--particularly when so many careers teach relevant skills on-the-job nowadays.

The concern over low graduation rates in America ignores the fact that college is no longer the great equalizer it was once believed to be; college graduates find dismal job and employment prospects, crushing mountains of student loan debt, and low projected earning potential. Finding ways to mint more college graduates does not address any of these problems.

Moreover, employers are increasingly finding that college graduates lack the skills to compete in the workforce. Much of this ill-preparedness dates from secondary schools, wherein students are pushed into colleges while still needing extensive remedial coursework, and thus never catch up with their peers who came to college prepared, simply because the education system is unwilling to let go of the prevailing "college-for-all" mentality. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) make a pretense of focusing not only on college-readiness but also on career-readiness, but that's all it is--a pretense. There is no career-tech or trade education to speak of, and--at least in the case of the literacy standards, with their requirements that students consistently make literary connections to Ovid and the Bible from 10th grade onward--only vague allusions to any path other than college, belying any recognition that not all students have the same goals, skills, or interests.

Don't get me wrong, this is a problem that needs to be solved as much by higher education as by the Department of Labor, through painstaking efforts to foster skill-based jobs that do not require a bachelor's degree, and making it incumbent upon corporations to end the discriminatory practice of stating that a college degree is required in entry-level positions wherein it is not needed. And, by that same token, college should be available and affordable to any student who truly aspires to post-secondary education, for personal or professional goals. But to say that college is the only path, or to address solely the problem of college costs without looking at the issues on either side--varied post-secondary-school goals on one side (not all of which include college), and high rates of unemployment and debt on the other--is to put a band-aid on a problem that is much more far-reaching than simply the price of tuition.

It is no less elitist or classist to say, "Everyone should get a bachelor's degree," than it is to say that only some people should; such a statement underscores the pervasive but counter-productive view of a B.A. as the most acceptable form of social capital in American society. But social capital doesn't put bread on the table. To the extent that opportunities are limited for those without college degrees, then as a society we need to work on creating more numerous and varied employment prospects that will cater to all types of students. And when that happens, due to the irrevocable laws of supply and demand, the university systems will be that much less capable of charging exorbitant fees for degrees of questionable utility.

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PS: A friend just pointed out to me that, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am *still* paying back my student loans from college, a decade (and two further degrees) after graduating.

PPS: My book "drops" in four days! If you love my column, it is exactly like this! If you hate my column, it is nothing like this. You can find it on Indiebound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any number of other awesome places where books are sold.

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