There is a part of me that loves that virtually any American can pursue a college education. When I am aligned with that part of myself, this value feels right, and feels quintessentially American. The land of endless opportunity. It feels good.
Ah, but you know, stuff gets complicated ... Let me play this one out...
I am aware that in other countries (Germany, for example, from whence my wife hails, and where my nephews are currently in school), you have to excel early in order to be allowed to continue into higher education. Though I skipped 4th grade, I did poorly in high school, and under such a meritocracy as we find in Germany, I probably would not have gotten a shot at a bachelor's degree, let alone a doctorate. I would not have earned the right, or demonstrated the capacity or commitment. Eventually I might have been successful at something, but certainly not at being a college president. (So far in this story, thank God for the American system...)
In Germany, by the end of Grundschule (roughly 4th grade) the system pretty much decides that you are going to Hauptschule (grades 5-9, not a lofty destiny path), Realschule (grades 5-10 with opportunities to pursue a real trade, with real skills, and real income, but NOT what the USA would call "Higher Education") or Gymnasium (grades 5-13), which indicates that the student appears to have university level potential. So if, by the 4th grade, a student does not apply himself and/or does not demonstrate enough capacity for success in higher education, he will effectively have written himself out of many career opportunities and life paths.
The student in a truer meritocracy probably would not graduate with a 2.4 GPA in Psych, with large student debt and no prospects in his field, because he wouldn't have been allowed to get that far without demonstrating more drive, commitment, talent or capacity to "make it" in that field.
Is that so wrong?
There are students with truly unremarkable records in American higher education who owe a bunch of money, and who cannot find work in their fields. But isn't that what you would predict? Of course, many will have personality gifts, or families with connections, or what have you, and they may not do well in college but still have opportunities similar to those which higher achievers enjoy. That has always been the case. Dad is probably going to hire Junior into the family business even though he had a 2.43 GPA in business and focused more on social life than academics. But if you spent four years not nailing it, who do you think is lining up to hire you?
I don't know. So many compelling questions.
If we hold on to the first value that everybody gets a chance both to go to college and to finish, even if in unremarkable fashion (I think you probably need a 2.0 overall and a 3.0 in your major at most schools), then we ARE going to graduate people who will not be able to compete with their more talented or more committed colleagues; they will not be significantly successful in their fields, and it will be hard to pay off those student loans working service industry jobs.
And now we have a second value (accompanied by a nation-wide hue and cry in the last year or so) that education should be affordable, and that the job you can get with the degree should allow you to pay off your student loans without undue distress. But I think these two values are banging into each other. I am not sure which of them we should relax.
Should the university have passed the marginal student through? Accumulating more debt along the way? This is not a hypothetical -- we have encountered this at Southwestern College, and it is an enormously difficult and painful question, and pulls you in the counter-directions, depending on which value gets ahold of your heart and mind's steering wheel at any given moment.
Perhaps at some point the academic bar in the U.S. should be raised so that the large student debt problem is diminished. If we continue to allow marginal students to barely pass through, do we really expect they will find satisfying work in their field, great jobs that pay well? Is that who you are looking to hire? I'm not. Is this not an ethical and moral issue in relation to which American higher education's leadership should challenge itself?
The call for affordability and a good job that allows one to pay off student debt in a reasonable amount of time will probably require a higher standard of performance, higher academic expectations. I am reminded here of all of the American suburban parents who put their kids in "Elite" and "Travel" soccer leagues, paying a goodly (sometimes ungodly) amount of money in hopes that their kid would get the free ride to college for playing soccer. Good luck with that one. Clearly a meritocracy will sort things out on the soccer field, and the kid who lollygags or does not have the talent will not be seeing any scholarship money, despite his parents' efforts and hopes. That is being paralleled, too, in higher education. If you get a 2.4, or a 2.6, or if you keep valuing the bars over the books, you will more likely find yourself in debt with a job seating folks at The Olive Garden. Nothing wrong with that job, unless you owe Uncle Sam $27.438.29 in student loans.
How much blame or responsibility does, or should, "the system" hold when a student does not apply himself, or when he chooses (or has chosen for him) a major course of study for which he may not be ideally suited?
Perhaps we need better career planning, earlier on? Perhaps we need more delineated and respectable and respected paths for young people? In the new world of social media marketing, app creation and other huge developments in the American economy, traditional (and expensive) university education might be a real, though well-intentioned, disservice to young Americans. In these new job markets, demonstrated capacity to rock is valued much more highly than GPA. It just is. And when student debt exceeds credit card debt in this country, and students can no longer afford to pay it off, something has to give.
"Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!" the Dodo from Alice in Wonderland proclaimed. Except it is just not working out that way in the United States of America these days, if the "prize" is a "good job" in one's field of academic study.
Alas, a Dodo he was, indeed. It is time to re-think some things.
Follow Dr. James Michael Nolan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/southwesternsf