The question of the cost of college had been in the news the past few years and I have been giving it a great deal of thought. So here we go.
I think we are at a point where public education (free) needs to be extended to the first two years of college. Over the last 200 years or so, what seems to be required in terms of an education has expanded, both in scope and in population. In colonial days, few people had any kind of formal education and it certainly wasn’t free, but as we moved into the 19th century, educational reform brought free/publicly funded to New England first and later to the rest of the country. At that point it was only primary (elementary) school. There was no demand for secondary education for all. Primary was enough for the type of jobs many people were doing. Those who looked to higher education accepted the idea that they would pay for it themselves. Very few went on to college.
By the end of the 19th century, early 20th, it was still common that children only finished as far as 8th grade. My grandmother, born in 1891, completed her studies to that level. She was a bright, well read woman who went on to employment mostly as a secretary throughout her life. She did crossword puzzles and quoted Shakespeare. She was a lifelong learner based on a foundation of an 8th grade education.
By the time my father was in school, completion of HS was more common, though still not a requirement for many jobs. My father graduated at 15 from Boys’ High of Atlanta in 1927, but many boys would have already been in the workforce by that point, trained by employers and through apprenticeship programs. College was still primarily for an elite few.
After WWII, completion of HS became a standard. There was no question that it would be publicly funded. It became accepted that that level of education was required for the new jobs of new era. After the launch of Sputnik, the push for students to complete HS became part of a national goal, a way to show the superiority of the West. Of course our society would fund such advancement!
When I graduated from HS in the 1970s, students could still drop out at age 16. they may have had more difficulty with employment that their peers who completed a diploma, but there was still room for trades, apprentices, and other non-college tracks.
Tracks. That was a loaded word in the education field. Tracking. Putting students into programs theoretically based on ability and inclination- some headed for college, others for vocational training. In practice, it was often used for segregation. White kids were college track, African Americans were not. As a result of that and other objections, tracking became a negative idea by the late 80s and 1990s. All students were to be prepared as if they were going to college, training in the the trades was denigrated. Everybody was expected to aspire to college.
But you know what? Not everybody is suited for college. Not everybody aspires to the kinds of jobs that required a college degree. Not everybody has the money for college. But the push became college prep for all during HS. Vocational programs in HSs disappeared. Now we have a a whole cadre of students who have a college prep education, but no job skills. So where do they go?
Some went to college and failed. Some tired to find jobs, but with no skills, failed. A new market emerged- vocational training marketed as “college.” There were other factors that drove up the cost of colleges, but these for profit colleges really exploited this idea that everyone needed to get a college degree. But they seemed to fill a need. because vocational education or any kind of true job training is very limited at the HS level. The better solution for many students is two years at a community college. Community colleges have stepped up to fill the gap. Many offer the kind of programs that used to lead to the trades in HS, but at a fraction of the cost of the for profit “colleges.” As technology has become an increasing part of our lives and jobs, the education for those jobs needs to adapt. HSs have added technology training, but not specific to individual jobs. The community colleges are filling that role as well. We are now in the 21st century, at a point where those two years of community college need to become part of the accepted educational path and publicly funded just as HS became in the 20th.