The Education We Deserve
Neither President Obama nor Governor Romney has addressed the precarious state of American higher education during their months of campaigning. Senator Rick Santorum’s comment during the Republican primaries that President Obama’s ambition that “everyone” go to college made him a “snob” still resonates with those who do not see the intimate relationship between higher education and the overall quality of personal and civic life. Robert J. Samuelson of The Washington Post, supporting Mr. Santorum, said it was time to ditch the “college-for-all crusade, which looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II.”
Some students may not be ready for college. But for the most part, students in every economic class should have the right to improve their station in life. Mr. Samuelson forgets that the post-World War II generation had the G.I. Bill of Rights. The bill educated several million ordinary servicemen starved for knowledge and remade the American middle class. The snobbery is in imagining a class of people incapable of college. Today, for economic reasons, millions of young people cannot attend a college. Of young people in the bottom economic quartile, only one in five goes on to college.
President Obama’s education program aims to improve access and affordability. It includes support for community colleges and tax credits to make college more affordable. Mr. Obama’s call for all Americans to enroll in college concerned only one year’s attendance at a community college. That would be a starkly minimal goal that would bring Americans only within sight of the level of competence of young Europeans who graduate from high-school-level technical programs.
At the same time, the administration and members of Congress have cracked down on the deceptive tactics of for-profit colleges that dupe men and women coming home from war into taking classes they cannot afford and then fail to equip them with employable skills. Since the average student finishing college owes $25,000, the president wants colleges and universities to provide more transparency about job prospects and student default rates. Meanwhile, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has introduced an income-based repayment plan whereby payments are reduced for those in low-paying jobs and forgiven after 10 years for graduates in public service occupations, like police, teachers and firefighters.
Governor Romney’s plans are not detailed. He would reverse a recent reform by the Obama administration that eliminated banks as middlemen in the distribution of federal student loans and would return to bank-based student lending. He would allow students in credential-granting programs to learn at their own pace rather than require a set amount of classroom time for the degree—an experiment that seems worth trying.
Job-training is only one aim of post-secondary education. Education, as the term implies, should include a deeper appreciation of life and one’s obligations to the larger community. If democracy is to thrive, all who qualify should have access to four years of higher education, which would include the liberal arts, the standard core of literature, history, philosophy, mathematics and sciences. To skip over Shakespeare, Beethoven, Chekhov, Rembrandt, Orwell and Dickens will leave an emptiness in our shared cultural life. Ideally, common classrooms, dorms, sports and clubs also build friendships among students of every race and economic background.
To promise higher education to every citizen is an investment in our common future. While the United States needs an expansion of educational possibilities for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, every young American should have access to affordable higher education. Both political parties would be well advised, therefore, to restore the cuts they contemplate in Pell Grants for low-income college students. For while personal responsibility is the American way, without government support for students and higher education, the United States will fall behind the rest of the industrial world in the skills of its workers and their participation in our civic culture.
A recent College Board study reports that 67 percent of those polled see education as an extremely important issue; the majority in every political grouping are willing to pay $200 more in taxes each year to support education. Democrats say that for reasons of equity and available resources, the federal government has the responsibility; Republicans believe the states should lead. Over three quarters of those polled agree that the United States should lead the world in granting postsecondary degrees. The American Dream has its cost, but to fail this challenge is to accelerate the drift into two societies of the haves and the have-nots.
Teacher to administrator ratios that are tilted in bad ways, luxury competition made possible by tax dollars, and crushing student debts are not good signs and all things that reformers in both parties seek to fix. The GI bill has had a demonstrably contributory effect on these bad trends and needs reform.
Does reducing the cost warrant attention in effectuating the right to a college education? Do college students need fancy dormitories, NCAA sports, psychological counselors like the poor soul who met once with the young man that killed those people at the Aurora Colorado theatre, grants from the NIH like that guy received or all the other add-ons that did not exist when the GI Bill started?
Do educators ever consider lectures by video, electronic textbooks or other ways of reducing the cost of delivery an education? Do Jesuit colleges?
Why is the idea that we need more government money, tax credits, loan forgiveness for public sector workers, $200 more in taxes or anything else on the side of subsidizing students - and colleges - rather than cutting the actual cost?
A significant fraction of the population (about 75%) does not have the cognitive ability to profit from higher education. These people, even more than the taxpayers, are being exploited by the "more college for more students" (really "more students for more colleges") mantra. They end up with useless degrees from mediocre institutions, at best; or with crushing student debt, half a degree or less, and hours wasted in remedial courses. The only winners are the colleges and universities, who pocket the tuition at the cost of temporarily hiring a few modestly-compensated adjunct "professors."
Student financial aid should be tied to an independently-administered qualifying exam. Students who can't prove on the exam that they are capable of doing university level work should not be conned into taking on student debt in the hope that a few more years of sitting around classrooms will magically make them capable of doing professional level work.
While it is very hopeful to see the democratic hispanic mayor of Los Angeles, accompanied by other up and coming democratic minority talent such as Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, and Michele Rhee speak up in favor of choice and vouchers, the unions supported by President Obama are still fighting a rear guard action against the choice vouchers provide in particular. Mr Romney is broadly supportive of extensive choice, including vouchers.
To this point, since the beginning of the Obama presidency America's editors have been lukewarm in their support of vouchers and even the advantage parochial schools offer over inner city public school education documented in the Jesuits' own Loyola Marymount study. With the broad impact of "Waiting for Superman" and the even more impactful "Won't Back Down" coming out of the liberal hotbed of Tinseltown (hope springs eternal), this issue is going to rise between now and the election. If the president sees his anti-voucher position will cost him rather than net him votes, he is likely to flip on the issue, to the benefit of our inner city children.
To this end, a prod from his supporters at America would be helpful to put an end to the president's fight against providing those very vouchers that would enhance the graduation rate for inner city minority children who need them desperately.
I would also respectfully question the implication that some test of a recent high school graduate unerringly predicts future potential for educational success. In fact, I think that is a nonsensical notion.
Until the dis-United States drastically and dramatically reduces our military budget, including of course, jettisoning our immoral nuclear weapons systems, we will never have the proper funding for social needs such as affordable higher education. When are we going to get it that the clear teachings and life of Jesus turned the world upside down in rejecting retaliation and vengeance and sriving to live nonviolently? And when oh when will we agree to sit down with and truly listen to our 'enemies' and recognize that their lives deserve the dignity and respect that all lives do.
In fact, it is our lifestyles and desires for more and more that feed our so-called need for 'defense' - which is why we have little funding for the common good. The cycle of violence is complete. To break it we must imitate the Christ in living a simple lifestyle and wanting and working for what's best not only for ourselves but our enemies as well.
One small but effective way for Jesuit colleges and universities to show an example would be to refuse to offer Military ROTC programs. How these programe are compatible with the Gospel of Jesus in beyond my comprehension.
ps I would love to see a feature article in AMERICA on the abhorence of spending over 800 billion dollars A YEAR on things military.