One of the best sight gags in the 1978 comedy “Animal House” comes from the image of John Belushi in a shirt that simply reads “COLLEGE.” No specific school. Just “COLLEGE.” We learn in the movie’s closing credits that Belushi’s barely literate character goes on to become a U.S. Senator.
I think of that image often as we hear new arguments about the cost of college, rising student debt, and challenges in matching educations with actual jobs in our rapidly changing economy.
First, some disclaimers. I am a full time instructor of communication at Hibbing Community College but don’t speak for my employer here. Still, I do want people to go to college, mine in particular. I also personally benefited from higher education. College hoisted me into the middle class like a squealing pig into the back of a pickup truck.
Nevertheless, I’ve met many people whose experiences differ from my own. Some got a degree that didn’t lead to a job they thought would be waiting for them, or to a job that didn’t pay much. Others attempt a degree, don’t finish, but are still stuck with the debt or unpaid bills. Still others weren’t prepared for college or failed to exert much effort. Many stories with as many different outcomes.
The big picture numbers are staggering: Almost 45 million Americans hold about $1.5 trillion in American student debt. That’s more money than Americans owe in credit card debt. It’s all wealth that could be in the pockets of working people but is instead tied up by credit houses, making the rich richer.
Many reasons exist. The cost of public and private college have indeed risen exponentially over 40 years. Unaccredited, for-profit colleges use rosy advertising to push programs that cost more than they should. An entire industry of predatory loan practices cropped up during this same period. Students often have little knowledge of how loans work, taking out more than they need. Even when students do understand student debt they must navigate a post-college gig economy where paying back the loans takes far longer than they hoped.
All of this leads many among today’s population of young people to conclude that college, especially college debt, isn’t worth it. I’ve heard very articulate arguments to this effect from academically successful students.
One persuasive speech I watched last year argued that today’s young people have been raised in an environment where information is available at the touch of a screen. Why bother sitting in a classroom? In another argument, Grand Rapids High School senior Dixie Love writes in an Oct. 26 Duluth News Tribune op/ed that students can earn more long term in fields that don’t require traditional four-year degrees.
Meantime, while students lament the cost of college, employers bewail the lack of qualified job candidates for skilled positions. Sometimes this is because businesses want people to work for less. But quite often there is a real lack of people trained in the right kinds of skills. Good money sits on the table with no takers.
“Don’t go to college, go to trade school.” You hear this sometimes. Well, I work at a public community college that is also a trade school. Here, I think there can be confusion about what the word “college” really means.
The liberal arts form the core of most four-year college education programs. And no, “liberal arts” does not refer to politics, but to the tradition that broad exposure to many fields of human knowledge makes a student a more rounded person. They become a more versatile thinker with an understanding of how to become a leader in society. The tradition began thousands of years ago and remains responsible for the sum of most human knowledge: The scientific method, language, etc.
Meantime, technical training prepares students to work in a specific job. This practice has also existed for thousands of years, though has only more recently been formalized in what some call trade schools. For centuries the practitioners of trades learned their craft through long apprenticeships which were often unpaid.
Today, learning a trade costs less than a four year degree if only because it typically takes much less time to complete the training. Here in Hibbing, a student can become a nurse, electrician, or mechanic in two years, or a dental assistant or HVAC professional in one. All of these jobs allow a person to own a home and raise a family while saving for retirement. Obviously this is a great option for many students.
Still, a liberal arts education IS the right choice for some, if they know what to do with it. The degree isn’t the end. It is the beginning. A curious student of life knows how to use the library of the world. This means so much more than having Google. It means knowing what to type into the search bar and how to understand the results.
It’s true. You don’t have to go to college. People without college degrees can make a living and some have been extremely successful. But those who have been successful didn’t accomplish their feats *because* they didn’t go to college, but rather because they possessed inherent skills, strong work ethic, and sometimes just good luck. They’d likely have been successful no matter what. But for every Bill Gates there are thousands of people whose names we do not know and who could really use $124.50 right about now.
In fact, we humans need to know things. Not just facts, but the words, history, science, math and basic truths behind them. We don’t just need to know information, but why it matters and how we can use it to build ourselves and our society.
There are a lot of ways to make this happen. “College” is one. “Technical training” is another. Together, they become powerful tools for humankind. They cannot be made mutually exclusive. We must help students make an informed choice and then value equally those who choose one or the other. And then we must make the right option possible for everyone.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).