Part of the American dream, at least as it applies to young people, generally involves four years at a respectable institution followed by a “real”’ job, preferably in the same field one studies in college. In her article “The Case Against College” the author, Linda Lee, offers some rather staggering statistics about just how ingrained this ideal is in American culture. She notes that “two-thirds of high school graduates go on to college. In some middle-class suburbs, that number reaches 90 percent” (Lee, 2001).
With such high statistics that are met with rather abysmal college graduation rates (Lee notes that around 26 percent actually finish with over a bachelor’s degree) one has to wonder if the asserted need for everyone to attain some degree of higher education is a myth and if so, what forces are at work that continue to perpetuate such a myth. To this end, it is worth noting that Lee fails to touch on the fact that American colleges, even those that are state institutions, are businesses. From what Lee cites as being a post-high school experience so many students are expected to partake in, surely business has been booming. In fact, there is a large subset of the American economy that relies exclusively on the notion that everyone needs to attend college and with the recognition of this lack of need, these businesses would sink into the ground.
Lee notes in her article that not everyone is suited for college and not everyone has ambitions that aligned with what a college (especially a full four-year institution) offers. As she suggests, “Some want to start businesses. Others want to be electricians or wilderness guides or makeup artists. Not everyone needs a higher education” (Lee, 2001). This concept of specialization is overlooked in traditional thinking about college where it asserted that you go to learn how to think and furthermore, to be a whole, better-rounded person.
One of the reasons this never gets discussed is that for many of these vocations, there is training involved, but it is minimal and more based in the real world through experience rather than years of one’s life living away from home. Trades such as the ones Lee mentions are vital but they simply do not make anyone any money. Skilled trades that take years of apprenticeship or very short learning courses might make some schools money, but they do not contribute to the larger economy that is propelled forward by the false notion of the necessity of college. Small trade schools or vocational schools might see short-term profit but generally the “stay” required for these courses is not long enough to require students to take out massive amounts of student loans, to purchase housing outside of their parent’s house, or to buy hundreds of dollars of books every semester. While it is worth suggesting that these are less “glamorous” jobs because they might not pay as well as an engineering job, there is a certain amount of cultural bias and one has to wonder what this has to do with simple economics.
Many aspects of the American economy rely exclusively on the healthy perpetuated notion that college, especially at a four-year institution is essential to success, not to mention a healthy pre-adult experience. For instance, at the macro-level, the college loan industry is part of the backbone of the credit system, which despite its problems, has proven more stable than other markets, such as housing, for instance. Student loans accrue rapidly and are sustained over the course of four or more years and with interest rates, generally mean that students will be paying for most of their adult lives at amounts that far exceed the initial loan amount. Additionally at the large level, colleges themselves make money with more alumni who graduate and allow them to use funding to build bigger and better universities and pay their professors and other staff well. This leads to all of the secondary jobs that rely on the presence of four-year institutions packed to the gills with students; janitors, cooks, general staff—all of the personnel required depend on constant streams of well-funded students to survive. When one factors in the book industry, that sells textbooks at what amounts to 80% markups on comparable books on similar topics, there is yet another industry. This discussion has not even included, for the sake of brevity, the hundreds of local and small business that support a consumer base of fresh college students coming in yearly.
There are some undisputed points that are both cited by Lee in her article and that are widely accepted as truth. For instance, most people know that the highest paying jobs in a general salary-based sense (and without concern for exceptions to the rule such as the author’s hair colorist who makes $300,000 per year) require a college education. Physicians, surgeons, psychiatrists, architects—all of these professions require great talent, skill, and necessitate the kind of formal educational background provided at college institutions. There are some people who are simply more academically-minded and who thrive in challenging fields that often come with higher pay and the need for higher education. However, there are also many majors that require a four-year degree but that do not pay off in the end. As the author notes, plumbers make more than philosophy majors and this is an example across sectors between college-educated and skilled or unskilled labor positions. The problem is, this paradigm that exists in our country has convinced young people (and the parents who so often foot the high bill) that they will not be able to succeed without being college educated—even if they end up being less. This false notion of the vital nature of a college education is propelled forward by colleges themselves, loan and credit card companies, booksellers, housing providers, and all of the other businesses that thrive off of offering products and services to college students. This is present in the local sense (a college town landowner who owns several properties wants to keep his units filled and the 15 pizza delivery operations all rely on the fresh and constant supply of too-many students as well). In short, college is for our economy what feed is to pigs; it provides vital sustenance and a fresh “crop” of students arrives each year.
When Linda Lee talks about her experiences with her son, who went on what she called a “$1000 per week pleasure cruise” and was a victim of the false notion that college is for everyone, she speaks to many parents who feel that their children have talents that might lie elsewhere. With rising costs of colleges and the still-plentiful supply of state and private funding in the form of high-interest loans, her voice is likely to be drowned out by the din of others who rely so much on this assumption.