College for All? Forget College? Irreconcilable Extremes

09/18/2012 02:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 18, 2012

Sunday's New York Times had articles that suggest two competing views: Everyone should go to college, and college is a waste of time. Which view is right?

Of course if there is a single truth, it must be: it depends.

A battle about education is underway right now, and not just in Chicago.

There is a third thing to consider, too: What actually happens in schools?

Last week, cognitive scientist Roger Schank argued against all the subjects taught in school. In some ways he is saying that what Paolo Freire called the "banking model" of stuffing children full of information they may use someday is obviously the source of misery for most students.

Is this also true for college?

An old model of a liberal arts education, with a luxurious curriculum that establishes a floor for what young students may need in the future hangs on in the elite colleges and universities: Great Books, Kant, postcolonialism, critical thinking, the basics of relativity theory, and so on. I have believed in this for all my adult life, until I began to ask some questions about it.

In community colleges and in the increasingly popular vocational training of business, engineering, information technology, medical professions, education, and the like, there is no time for Kant when examinations have to be passed and bills have to be paid. Getting the credential as quickly as possible is the primary goal. New battles are being fought over which major is the best and which gives the best "return on investment."

The assumption is that college is -- or is it? -- worth the investment. Economists give competing answers.

But, say the old elite, such as the Phi Beta Kappa society (full disclosure: I'm a member), college is not simply about getting a job.

And yet here we have benefactors in Kalamazoo, Michigan, promising young students fully paid college tuition if they complete school, and this is encouraging at-risk children to stick it out. They may not be there for what they are learning -- as Schank knows. But by getting them to stay in school, they have to toe the line, swallowing their restlessness and getting on the train that may lead them, if all goes well, to the middle class.

Those already solidly in the middle class, with all the cultural and social capital they need, already knowing "how to learn" and reading at a high level, confident about their abilities, able to make calls to the top executives in the world, can take PayPal investor Peter Thiel up on his offer of $50,000 for two years to carry out an entrepreneurial objective as long as they do not go to college.

And now college degrees come with huge amounts of debt, as Gail Collins pointed out yesterday, and students often have no idea what this will mean to them in the future, as they attempt to repay staggering amounts almost until they retire.

At least the Kalamazoo Promise removes the cost of tuition, though housing, fees, and the like can still be substantial obstacles for people outside the upper-middle classes.

So should everyone go to college?

In a system where the college degree signals a certain kind of completion and the character that accompanies it, anyone without a degree will be seen as falling short--unless she can signal this information in some other form.

Here is another source of evidence about the extreme and growing inequities in the United States. Those who already have evidence of their virtue can forgo proving it through the college degree and can concentrate on the substance of what they are learning, whether in or out of school. Those desperate to demonstrate their abilities have no options other than sitting in classrooms and sticking it out for as long as it takes.

College can be transformative. It can be the pivotal moment in a young life. It can be the needed and substantive step to a complex career. It can change lives. Or it can be an empty but costly slog through dreaded, meaningless requirements.

College for all? Forget college? It depends. And one of the things it depends on is that taboo U.S. topic: social class.

You can learn all about it in college.