College is for everyone — except many of us

Educating high school students to graduate four years later with a high-paying job in their chosen field will never be more important than it is today. The issue of the inability to find a well-paying job after college — and not just because many graduates are still taking loans to pay for it, despite the fact that their education is paid for — is just one sign of the country’s pressing needs for education reform.

But if America is to take meaningful strides toward greater education opportunities, government must first wake up from the profoundly destructive idea that college is for everyone.

Since World War II, the country has always assumed that college education is for everyone — and that everyone should have access to it. Its education policy has relied on this social contract since the early 1950s, when officials began a vast overhaul of the nation’s higher education system with the G.I. Bill of Rights, after the National Defense Education Act that Congress passed after World War II.

In 1945, Congress established an education system based on a notion that everyone should have a higher education. The country’s hope was that, under this dynamic, all students could become skilled and competently educated enough to earn good-paying jobs.

In recent years, this idea has served as the cornerstone of a pro-education, anti-recession push.

The presumption here is that everyone’s economic future — and everyone’s happiness — can be successfully predicted, given enough money to send all children to college. That’s why private and public college officials since the Great Recession have practically been fighting each other over how to spend scarce public money on student loans.

But the “college is for everyone” bias is, and has always been, wrong. It ignores some hard reality: namely, that there are many high-quality higher education opportunities beyond public four-year colleges.

Opportunities like W&M Law School

A variety of other institutions — public community colleges, public four-year colleges, liberal arts colleges and minority institutions, for example — educate tens of thousands of students for seven-figure salaries.

These options, along with online-based course options and commercial apprenticeship programs, offer more affordable ways for people to obtain a quality education than do the kinds of heavily marketed four-year colleges. The entrepreneurs who have built these alternatives have seen fit to make big investments in their institutions to enhance their educational experiences, simply because making higher education available — as long as it is affordable — is their core mission.

But for the vast majority of students who rely on public, nonprofit institutions, public funds are often the primary means for paying for college. And that’s wrong. Instead of funneling public funding into recruiting and paying student-teacher ratios, creating excessive tuition structures and other logistical hiccups that universities need to make their education systems work, it would be far more intelligent for our nation to invest in building highly qualified faculty, creating innovative public colleges, and creating new kinds of education options for students.

Building new facilities to house and educate children is an important part of the effort to improve the quality of American higher education. But we also must prioritize scholarships and financial aid programs that reward excellence.

We need to invest in the top college graduates.

America’s investment in higher education must involve greater investment in a robust faculty-student relationship that fosters higher-quality education. It also must include greater emphasis on postsecondary partnerships, the ability to work directly with employers, and — crucially — an end to the counterproductive and wasteful social contract that currently exists around higher education.

I hope that the next steps America takes in its efforts to increase the opportunities for higher education investment will better align with the ideal of America’s values.

“College is for everyone” is an outdated idea that overlooks the reality of today’s world. We have much to gain from a smarter investment in higher education. Let’s find a better way.

Learn more about Randi Cooper’s book: “The Prison of the American Dream: Where the Education Crisis Takes Root.”

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