I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s stated goal of providing a free community college education to all students (as long as they maintain a 2.5 GPA and their family income is under $200,000). Even if this program can be implemented (and there are many hurdles), I don’t think it will accomplish what its proponents think it will.
My first career was as a theatrical lighting designer. I didn’t go to college – I learned by watching, working on shows and asking a lot of questions. Once, Utica’s Stanley Theater asked Joseph Rusnock, a theater professor, for his recommendations on improving their in-house lighting setup. Joseph then asked for my input and that’s pretty much what he gave them. I don’t fault Joseph for this – I learned a lot from him, too. My point is that we’ve fetishized the concept of “college degree.” It doesn’t equate to ability or even knowledge.
When I worked for Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute as technical director (my title at the time was “technical services manager” to avoid confusing people who might think I was somehow equal to other named directors in the organization), I wrote a series of movie reviews that were handed out to patrons. (Some of those are available on Moss Island Sounds – go to the Movies page, scroll down and find the series from Fast, Cheap & Out of Control through The Flower of My Secret.) When the college-degreed Director of Performing Arts found I’d written the reviews instead of copying something from Roger Ebert or The NY Times, he said “You have no education in film!” I thought the work spoke for itself. I still do.
When I lost my job as a computer network engineer, I applied for dozens of positions. Most of the time, my lack of a college degree disqualified me from even scoring an interview, despite my experience and letters of recommendation from customers who’d been happy with my work (even at $100 per hour, of which I received about $15.) When I got interviews, they were short – “We’d like to have someone with your qualifications but HR would never let us hire you.” That’s why I decided to finally attend college – I needed that ticket just to get in the door.
I mostly paid for college myself (later years were subsidized by Utica National Insurance and then Lockheed Martin.) Paying my own way was highly motivating – unlike high school, which hadn’t come out of my own pocket, I now had incentive to work hard. As a “returning” student (i.e. “older”), I observed that younger students tended to skip classes, skimp on homework, and advocate early dismissal from class. Those of us paying for it wanted our money’s worth – we didn’t want to miss anything.
When I entered the workforce as a college graduate, my first job was as a computer network support technician. I didn’t use anything I’d been taught in college – 100% of the knowledge required came from my own experience and intuition. Even as I moved on to different jobs and changed employers, my degrees were irrelevant, except as a ticket in the door. (I was a dual major, B.S. in Accounting and Information Systems, 4.0 average, and MBA in Technology Management, focus in Human Resources Management, 3.73. I mention these in full because I paid a lot and spent a lot of time, and mostly they don’t matter at all.) My first boss at Lockheed Martin said it takes six months to find the bathroom, by which he meant that productivity comes slowly, as the job is learned. That’s true just about anywhere. (Yes, not EVERYWHERE. Sometimes college degrees really are necessary, I know.)
So here’s my point. If the current system isn’t doing exactly what it purports to (preparing students to perform specific roles in the workforce), it’s valuable anyway. I loved the process of learning, and benefitted from the discipline of taking responsibility for my own education and writing lots of papers. I got more out of it because I had skin in the game, so to speak. Making college free presupposes it’s just the knowledge that will do the trick for students – give them the ability to attain job-related knowledge, they’ll be able to find good jobs. One more step towards social/economic equality! BUT. If a college degree is really just a ticket in the door, which is borne out in my experience, it’s reasonable to assume the ticket might change in the future, just as it has periodically before now. Make college free, and it will become just like a high school education today. Employers will start demanding more – advanced degrees – just to pass the interview. Also, those who can afford the more prestigious private schools will certainly have the edge in a job market where most people have college degrees. Absent clear differentiating factors, it seems likely employers will prefer “brand name” degrees.
College is a scam. The presumed value of a degree has to be high in order for people to support colleges and keep them in business. Graduates who get jobs are incentivized not to hire non-degree holders, which would retroactively devalue their own investment. If basic college education becomes commoditized, effort will be made to market the “value” of a “better” education, and we’ll end up where we are now before too long. Free college education will not level the playing field, even if students do make an effort. The gigantic machinery we’ve built around the fiction of the DEGREE won’t let it happen. I’d better write it again: B.S. in Accounting and Information Systems, MBA in Technology Management, from an AACSB accredited business school. Just trying to get my $75,000 worth, while I still can.