The year 2020 will go down as the strangest of my life so far. But I have something to compare it to. For younger people these strange times will provide the experiences they’ll draw upon the rest of their lives.
That’s why decisions they’re making right now will profoundly influence times yet to come.
The young inherit the world as it is. The only thing they control is what they do with it. And at the outset they possess only a few ways to control their fate. One of them is college.
Now, as a disclaimer, I teach at a community college. I suppose you could argue that makes me hopelessly biased toward going to college. Let me clarify, however, that my bias toward going to college has less to do with what I do now and much more to do with what college did for me years ago.
I grew up on a family-owned junkyard. Books and knowledge excited me. The skills and perspectives I gained from college made my life better, both personally and professionally. I teach to give this experience to others. I feel I owe it to them.
But in the almost 20 years since I left college the cost of going has more than doubled. Meantime, economic trends changed the way we work.
Automation and corporate consolidation sapped industrial jobs, replacing them with far fewer and much more technical ones. As the size and scope of our civilization expanded we also saw new all-or-nothing political arguments put government and education in a state of constant budget crisis. Local businesses, always the heart of a strong economy, became squeezed by consumer trends toward big chains, cheap goods and online sales.
Since the turn of the 20th Century the U.S. economy has never been as strong as reported, certainly not for everyone in the population.
Then COVID-19 hit, proving the point. We quickly learned that working and learning remotely can be meaningful, or empty, depending on how these tasks are practiced. The disease isn’t fair in who it sickens or kills, or in how it doled out economic pain.
With Minnesota unemployment just above 8 percent, and national unemployment twice that much, we would normally see a large number of people looking to retrain for new jobs at a community or technical college like ours in Hibbing. But that hasn’t happened. Fall enrollment is down, not just here but across the Minnesota State system.
The reason is uncomfortable. Students don’t know what the future holds. Why would they? Neither do their parents. Moreover, students don’t know if college has any chance of helping them. They understand the cost. They can read the list of classes on a schedule. But an 18-year-old or a dislocated worker both face the same question. What are we training for?
In confronting this uncertainty young people aren’t just weighing their major, they’re considering whether to go to college at all.
A June 3 BBC report by Anisa Purbasari Horton entitled “The rise of the pandemic-era ‘gap year’” documents another aspect of this phenomenon.
The term “Gap Year” refers to students who take a year off between high school and college to engage in some kind of experience. This could include travel, some kind of special training, or a unique work experience. It’s common in Europe and Australia, less so here in the United States.
But with COVID-19 threatening to disrupt the next school year as well, the gap year has taken on new meaning. Those with the means can try to make something of it with an internship or volunteer work. Most others will work a low paying job. Will things be better in a year? That’s a gamble.
This year could be seen as the first step toward some new way of learning and working. Or it could be a lost year in what might become a lost age.
That’s where college matters most. The point of going to college is not to receive a set of instructions for how to live every moment of your life. No, the purpose of college is to gain knowledge, new perspectives and critical thinking skills to use no matter what life brings.
During uncertain times those skills become even more important. College isn’t the only way to get them; but it’s the way built to deliver them to the most people.
What will students do? How will colleges respond? The answer to these questions will shape what happens over the next half century.
Aaron J. Brown is a Northern Minnesota author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power and early 1900s Hibbing. Contact him at email@example.com.