Recession meme: college is optional?

Will the middle class dream of a college education be a victim of the Recession?

Will the middle class dream of a college education be a victim of the Recession?

I’ve always found the notion of memes fascinating– discrete ideas that replicate and spread and mutate between individuals and groups. I’m always on the lookout for new memes that are racing across the cultural landscape (at least here in the U.S.) and think I’ve spotted a good candidate. Call it “college optional.” Its basically the notion that the long-treasured middle class dream of a college education for our children now has a big set of brackets around it, meaning “if.” College if you can afford it (and many white collar families no longer can). College if it will actually provide your kids with skills that they need to get and keep a well paying job. College if the states and the Federal government continue to subsidize the costs of liberal arts education and support the type of academic work and study that’s become the norm in the U.S.

These are a lot of if’s which is probably why you’re starting to see folks wondering (aloud) whether the kind of college education that our colleges and universities offer and that most middle class parents have dreamed of for their kids isn’t slipping out of reach. Given that its slipping out of reach, I guess its natural (or at least comforting) to wonder whether its really what’s best for our kids, anyway.

The latest voice trumpeting the “college optional” meme is the Wall Street Journal, where Sue Shellenbarger has  an article today titled “Rethinking Price and Value When Picking a College.” Her thesis: the economic dislocation caused by the global recession, coupled with skyrocketing costs of tuition at private colleges and universities (total costs up 67% at private colleges in the last decade and 84% at public universities) are forcing parents and their children to lower their horizons, and to question the real value of a degree from an “elite” university. Price consciouness reigns, families are spending less on education and state schools and community colleges are seeing burgeoning demand.

There are other voices as well.

  • NPR was just the latest outlet (after NYT,  CSmonitor.com and others) to profile Matthew Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soul Craft, a book that preaches the virtues of working with your hands and actually learning hard skills as opposed to the soft skills common in our knowledge based economy. Crawford warns about an education monoculture in the U.S. that has deprived our economy of the skilled labor it needs to grow and succeed.
  • A friend (and B2 reader) pointed me to an opinion piece by Meagan Francis on Babble.com (NOTE: link was broken when I tried it. Hopefully it will work by the time you do) about her intention to _not_ help her kids pay for college (while being supportive in other ways). Her thesis: a four year liberal arts education may not be the best preparation for the work world, while many graduating High School seniors aren’t ready to take their studies seriously anyway (so why pay for it).
  • Yet another friend pointed me (via Facebook) to this article from insidehighered.com about the ways in which California’s budget crisis threatens the state’s long-treasured public university system. There’s more at question than just class sizes or programming choices: the role that higher ed plays in nurturing California’s economy (and the national economy) is really being questioned. One quote from Jack Miles, an English prof at UC Irvine struck me:

    “There are always people who call it frills and say ‘Who needs that? Who needs a symphony? Who needs a library?’ Those voices will always be around, and they become more compelling at a time of triage.… You may think that if you just provide the basics for everybody all will be fine, and you can skip the frosting on the cake. It may not actually work that way. It may be that you have to spend some money at the top,”
    he said.

Indeed, affordable, high quality public (and private) higher education has been a pillar of the American middle class since the 1940s, when the GI Bill sent millions of veterans to college after they served. As we all know, the original GI Bill was far more generous than what’s been offered more recent generations of soldiers: liberal in its definition of qualifying education programs and generous in its reimbursement of costs related to obtaining that education. My father — the youngest of six children and the only one to attend college (BC, as it turns out) did so on the GI Bill and still talks about what a great deal it was: paying a full ride at BC and putting some money in his pocket to take his girlfriend (now my mother) down to NYC to see some jazz, to boot.  Not such a bad thing.  A new take on the GI Bill, signed into law a year ago, is due to take effect on August 1 and should expand education benefits to soldiers who complained that the existing program often fell pitiously short of covering the costs of a college education.

The debate about what kind of education to offer our children filters down to towns like Belmont, as well, as we consider  how best to prepare them for what comes next — whether that be a two or four year college, or something else. As budget constraints threaten the ability of Belmont’s Public Schools to deliver the same kinds of services and classes that we consider core to our mission, look for a very similar debate to crop up about whether preparing the vast majority of students to enter four year colleges is what Belmont should be doing (and paying for).

  • annemahon

    Yikes – This is so well written and so scary.

    Our children have so many obstacles being put in front of them that success feels like a long shot instead of something guaranteed with the time and effort that used to be necessary to reach the goals.

    Colleges and Universities are cutting programs, prices have increased to unaffordable levels (my son says he wants to go to MIT and we tell him Community College is where it's at) and the theory that working with your hands is the way to go seems to be questionable when there are so many people with vocational trade training looking for work.

    I don't know where the answers lie, but we better start digging for them. This whole theory of America as the Superpower is going to diminish as we put out more poorly educated or trained people. We have to invest in education and infrastructure if we ever want to see a return. The more we try to ignore the erosion, the greater the consequence and bill will be down the line.

  • http://www.wickedlocalbelmont.com/ Tony Schinella

    Another nice piece Paul. I agree with some of Anne's comments below too.

    A few thoughts, if you don't mind. First, there is a huge difference between “elite” and “college,” with some subsets. College is the dream; elite college is a mega dream and not realistic for most children the same way being a sports star or a rock star is not realistic for most children. We all want the best for our kids but I think it is important to be honest and straight with them while they are dreaming. That's why I hope to do as my kids get older.

    If you don't get into the elite school, that doesn't mean you can't go to a place like Harvard. Harvard has a great extension school program. Anyone can go. And if you work hard, and take all the required courses, a student can get a liberal arts degree from Harvard at night in about five years at about 25 percent of the cost. I know, I went there for two years although I didn't finish. And it is a Harvard degree too! From there, they can continue their post-grad education anywhere with that degree. I'm going to do what Anne did and steer my children in that direction. Get out, learn about the world, figure out your life for a year, then buckle down and go to school if you want. Or don't if you don't. But be sensible. Six figures worth of debt isn't worth it.

    For me, the bigger part of this, which I have been harping a lot about over the years, is the issue of globalization. While it is nice for the WSJ, NPR, etc., to talk about the global economic meltdown, it is the free trade system by which our country bases its economic policy that has pitted household against household in a race to the bottom with no end in sight. In the old days, you didn't need to go to university because there was a middle class factory job building something relevant and earning a decent wage. Those jobs are no longer there and now Wal-Mart is the country's largest private employer, second only to the armed services. You need a bachelors degree to run a McDonald's these days.

    In a rambling sort of way, what I'm trying to say is that the current economic system doesn't work and most of the other economic systems in the world don't seem to work either. I don't have the answers but I can tell you that nothing we have done as a nation in the last 30 years, since I really start paying attention to things, seems to be working.

  • pjlooney

    I don't think we can get to that debate until we stop the “fee” system in Town and have an honest discussion about appropriately “fully” funding needs and discontinuing wants. Hopefully that day is approaching and we may find that doing with less of the wants will bring the community closer together as the new economic and Global reality take root.

  • bloggingbelmont

    Agreed PJ — the “privatization of public education” is a much more pressing issue here (and in other communities) than the 10,000 foot “where is higher education going” issue. i also hope we can have an honest discussion about these questions as well that doesn't boil down to the same old “greedy parents” vs. “heartless seniors” caricatures.

    • kbecker

      I totally agree with all of these comments- but I am especially concerned with what Paul referred to as “greedy parents vs. heartless seniors”. I think this town needs a huge PR campaign to help some of us better understand the seniors perspective and others to appreciate the school system and it's hard work. I have spoken with Senior Center advocates that have helped me better appreciate the life it brings to this town, and equally important is for the “non parents” in town to fully understand the amazing work our teachers do- above and beyond, and just how fantastic our schools are.
      Parents are basically paying higher taxes with all of these fees- and from the looks of the future budget issues, that won't ever go away. We need to start understanding the huge need to get at least a 6 million dollar override or the results are not going to be pretty- I know, I know…..dream on…… but it's true.
      Did I get off topic???:)

  • gpryor

    It is high time to question the (middle/upper class) assumption that what 17- and 18-year-old kids need is four more years of abstract thinking shoved down their throats, particularly when those throats are thirsty for beer and other real-life experiences. Yet the choice between vocational and liberal arts education seems forced as well. Could we re-think the whole arrangement based on what a capable teenager needs developmentally, and the ways in which that teenager's community needs him or her to become, eventually, a contributing member? Economic downturns are ideal times for re-invention. I'd like to see a six (or five) year college. Kids apply and are accepted to this imaginary college. Then they go off, under the auspices of the college, to serve the world for two years. Their service would be concrete work based on their abilities and interests; they would “major” in clearing forest trails, caring for the elderly, or other focused community service. Their pay would be converted to a fund that supplements tuition for the following four years (or three) of studies on campus. They would arrive on campus more mature, understanding that they have the ability to contribute and are needed by others, and eager to apply abstract studies to the real world situations they've already encountered–all in all far less likely to waste $160,000 avoiding academic work and drinking beer. How could we update the education Belmont provides to become both useful and developmentally appropriate? The gap between what Belmont High provides and what Minuteman does seems to wide. Couldn't there be a sensible middle ground?

  • bloggingbelmont

    Really good points. I think you're right the “crisis” is going to prompt all kinds of hand wringing about our education system. Clearly: a four year liberal arts degree, which has been the norm for a half century, seems like a great idea for some students and clearly not for others. European countries like, say, Germany, typically offer free university educations for a small number of top performing students, but also much more structured industrial and trades based education for others. Even in the U.S. I note that in the West (and California, in particular) there's much heavier reliance on community colleges than here in Massaschusetts, which is pretty much “four year liberal arts degree central.”

    I just wonder how much of the talk will be short term “there's not enough money — let's change stuff” kind of conversation versus the long term “let's do what's best for future generations and for the country, even if it means spending more money on education.” In other words, if the answer to those who are calling for ed reform is always to spend less money than we're spending now, or the same money “more efficiently” than there are a bunch of questions we're not going to ask because the feeling will be “society doesn't want to pay for that.” I venture to guess that if we took the U.S. Department of Education budget and the Department of Defense Budget and flipped them – spending on education what we're spending on wars and the military and vice versa, then we would no longer be having a conversation about the crisis in education, because it wouldn't exist. There would be plenty of money for a rich educational experience strecthing from pre-K through university with small class sizes, individualized education for those that need it, skills training for kids who don't want to pursue an academic path and, oh yeah, state sponsored post secondary education for kids who did. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that such spending would also engender a Renaissance in science, math and the humanities and make the U.S. far more “secure” in real terms — with less poverty and violence and a less bellicose foreign policy. My 2c.

  • gpryor

    A raft of effective changes in higher education could take place without swapping the defense budget for the education budget if we–parents, community, public–simply opened our minds to the alternatives. Perhaps that is what is happening now with the meme you've observed in the cultural landscape. If one college offered a “pre-academic service year” providing experience and growth that would then be integrated into students' academic years, applications would surge. (Many schools are integrating foreign study into the overall academic program in ways not done 20 to 30 years ago.) If there were a way that integrated service with academics reduced college fees while increasing student engagement, we would have a whole new education system — without wrangling over increases in federal spending on education.

  • gpryor

    A raft of effective changes in higher education could take place without swapping the defense budget for the education budget if we–parents, community, public–simply opened our minds to the alternatives. Perhaps that is what is happening now with the meme you've observed in the cultural landscape. If one college offered a “pre-academic service year” providing experience and growth that would then be integrated into students' academic years, applications would surge. (Many schools are integrating foreign study into the overall academic program in ways not done 20 to 30 years ago.) If there were a way that integrated service with academics reduced college fees while increasing student engagement, we would have a whole new education system — without wrangling over increases in federal spending on education.