The June 2008 edition of The Atlantic published an excellent article that helps illustrate the inanity of encouraging everyone to go to college. Written by an anonymous adjunct professor of English at a community college, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower is an entertaining read. The caption under the title reads: The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a 'college of last resort' explains why.
In the article Professor X describes what it is like teaching basic essay writing skills to people who probably aren't qualified for community college (and perhaps not even for high school). The students are attending because their jobs require them to attend (apparently you need to go to college to become a police officer) or because they are hoping to improve upon their poverty-wage jobs by obtaining a college education. One of his students, "Ms. L", is woefully unprepared and perhaps even barely literate. Ms. L is proud of herself for having written a college paper, but Professor X feels obliged to fail her with an F. (What if she were a plant from a newspaper and would go on to publish an article about how an incoherent, pathetically short mess of a paper garnered a C grade at the local community college?)
This narrative is profound because it is one of the few published articles that dares to question the dogma that everyone should go to college and that college will magically cure all of our social ills when in reality it merely creates new ones. It also provides a memorable demonstration of just how ridiculous that notion is. Here are a few excerpts:
The colleges and the students and I are bobbing up and down in a great wave of societal forces—social optimism on a large scale, the sense of college as both a universal right and a need, financial necessity on the part of the colleges and the students alike, the desire to maintain high academic standards while admitting marginal students—that have coalesced into a mini-tsunami of difficulty.
Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish.
America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines.
There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals. We want the police officer who stops the car with the broken taillight to have a nodding acquaintance with great literature.Sadly, Professor X's narrative will probably fall on deaf ears. For-profit colleges are springing up like dandelions and advertising aggressively, eager to devour federal student loan money and funnel it to Wall Street. It's easier for our politicians to sell a panicky populace on the notion that higher education will magically solve our economic and social problems than it is for them to address foreign outsourcing, the displacement of Americans from jobs by foreigners on H-1B and L-1 visas, and mass immigration.