In college, I was the sort of student who routinely went above and beyond. For my neurobiology seminar, for example, I didn't just read the chapters I was assigned in Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat; I devoured the entire book and several others besides. After taking a freshman-level survey course in American history, I went a little mad and started reading everything I could acquire on the life of John Adams. And for my final project in developmental psychology, I deliberately chose the hardest option because I wanted the challenge.
I'm not sharing this to brag. I'm sharing this to make clear how much I enjoyed college and how much I appreciated the opportunity to go. And yes: For those students who wish to dive into the life of the mind or who have certain professional ambitions, college is a fantastic - and sometimes even necessary - option. But just as we shouldn't equate health insurance coverage with health care, we shouldn't equate universal college with universal education.
Mike Rowe has attracted bile from the left for making the same point in a series of excruciatingly polite posts (see here and here) responding to Bernie Sanders and his supporters, but he is 100% correct: It is foolishly utopian and economically wasteful to promote college as the only viable path to prosperity and happiness. How do I know? Because sadly, I participate in the college racket.
Okay -- maybe I'm being unfair to myself (and to my workplace). I also offer remedial instruction in all four core academic subjects. But a large chunk of my job revolves around college. Editing application essays, providing admissions counseling, prepping students for the SAT -- these are ever present services whose availability is featured prominently in all of our promotional materials. And I've grown to hate it -- just a little. I hate what the rat race does to my students -- especially the C students with below-average SAT scores. Often, I'm tempted to recommend NOVA: "It has guaranteed admissions agreements with most schools in the Virginia system, you know. And you don't have to take the SAT to apply." But thanks to our college mania, that kind of practical suggestion feels verboten. Indeed, when I was an adolescent twenty years ago, "NOVA" was a threat: "If you don't get good grades/study for the SAT/finish your college applications, you're going to end up going to NOVA."
Even for my top performers, the college-or-else zeitgeist has had negative consequences. Just last week, I was talking to a very talented eighth grader about his high school options, sharing with him my own personal philosophy that it is better to get a B or a C in a course in which you're the dumbest student in the room than it is to get an A in a course in which you are the big fish in the tiny pond. He didn't believe me, and honestly? I couldn't blame him. The intensity of the college competition is so insane that it is liable to make anyone risk-averse. But is that the sort of mentality we really want to foster in our brightest kids? Is that the sort of mentality that will lead to scientific progress or technological innovation?
Here's what kills me: Leftists claim to be champions of non-conformity -- yet they're greeting Rowe's reasonable request that we boost alternatives to college with howls of outrage. Why? As you yourselves insist, people are not all the same. So why does your fanatical belief in everyone's right to bodily autonomy and personal expression suddenly disappear when education is the topic of discussion? It makes one suspect that you care more about lavishing perks on the professors and administrators in your constituency than about rearing self-actualized citizens.
We need to open the relief valve, stop pushing college as High School 2.0, and start celebrating some truly counter-cultural options. Apprenticeships, trade schools, free (or low cost) online courses paired with qualification exams -- if these were presented to students as equally valid paths to success, perhaps fewer would be pressured to serve time in a traditional university and more would be freed to take chances with their learning and embark on their adult lives without the anchor of student debt. If there were an actual free market in post-secondary education, perhaps professors would end up complaining less about mercenary students who poo-poo the pleasures of liberal learning and do the bare minimum to earn their credentials like good little automatons. If we actually listened voices like Rowe's, maybe - just maybe - my kids would like school a little more.