By Christiane Warren, Ph.D., Guest Contributor

January 15, 2021

In today’s public discourse both on and off university campuses, the overwhelming consensus asserts that a college degree has become a necessity, even a collective right to secure individual economic security and to address past and present wrongs of racial and economic inequality.  If the cost of college remains high, many students, and disproportionally this means, students of color, are unable to attain a college degree.  Thus, existing levels of social and economic inequality continue to persist and even grow, contrary to the long-cherished belief that a college education serves as the key to social mobility and economic stability.

The answer to this generally accepted causal connection, as offered by the incoming administration and its Progressive supporters, can be found in an expanded role of Federal funding and regulation aimed at removing financial barriers from college attendance. While noble in its basic sentiment, these ideas are highly problematic and largely unrealistic in their implementation. Furthermore, much of their justification is built on a flawed premise, shaded by ideological subjectivity, and will lead, not to greater equality, but only to the hastened demise of the American higher education structure.

To address the issue in detail, it is necessary to clarify the current crisis in its actual terms: The first assumption, that a college degree is a “must have” and thereby should be fully funded by the public, namely the taxpayer, is false. Not every person needs to, nor is academically able, to earn a college degree. Most jobs still do not require four years of study. By reducing the college degree to a means for obtaining employment, we lower its educational value and place an undue burden on many students, who are neither prepared for, nor truly need four years of intellectual study in abstract thinking and theoretical analysis to obtain employment and relative financial security. Most of today’s occupations can be entered into with an arguably improved, High School education and 18 months to 2 years of vocational skills acquisition.

Yet, many argue that the modern-day high school diploma no longer serves the needs of the 21st century workplace. The responsibility and cost of educating the American public has been displaced, largely on community colleges and state universities, where most under-prepared students attend. The need for additional services both in student activities and services along with the steep increase in assessment requirements, have greatly contributed to the growth in administrative costs.  Many educators place emphasis for reform here, demanding that colleges offer even more robust support systems, alter admission criteria and adjust course curricula to reflect the learning needs of academically under-prepared and financially marginalized students.

This acceptance of so-called “credential creep” as a fact due to the overall failure of many public high school systems, is inherently wrong and should be vigorously fought. Shifting the responsibility of general education from high school, which is free and mandatory, to colleges, which are voluntary and require payment, is contradictory to the tenets of equity and defies basic common sense.  It also further contributes to the escalation of costs and persistent educational inequality. When the educational responsibility of the secondary school system is transferred to post-secondary sector, society ends up paying twice for the same service and perpetuates instructional redundancies. Students spend additional time, financial aid, and energy, learning in college what society paid for them to learn while in high school. Not only does this deplete already limited public resources, but it also decreases their chances of success, and thus leads to greater drop-out and loan default rates.

Educators and reformers acknowledge the problem; however, they advocate for colleges to provide more support services in the name of racial and economic equity. Doing that, however, only exacerbates the original problem of inequality and further adds to the cost of higher education.

For those who truly seek reform, both for students and for society, the answers are far from easy. Points for exploration may be found in ending social promotion in public schools, curtailing systemic disciplinary discrimination against male students of color, raising the professional status of public-school teaching through recognition, salaries and support, and limiting the reliance on standardized testing as the primary measure of student achievement. By bolstering the depth and quality of the general education students achieve through their high school diploma across the board, the necessary community and critical skills, so valued can be acquired before leaving school. Thus, post-secondary learning can be either focused on acquiring specific job training skills or furthered in college for those who have both the inclination and ability to do so. Doing so should be preferable over lowering standards and expending money to teach the same course work again that was not processed in high school, during the first 2 years of college.  While on the surface, free college, especially with an emphasis on community college appears to be a laudable concept, however, on closer examination, it is based on flawed assumption and will inevitably prove to fall short of its social justice goals, while burdening the American taxpayer with an unsurmountable bill.

More About the Author

Guest author, Dr. Christiane Warren, Senior Consultant at Anna J Cooper Education Advocacy. Recognized for producing growth and cultivating success in the career and education space, Dr. Warren has served as tenured faculty, department chair and academic dean for entire divisions and in the Academic Affairs office at both 2-and-4 year institutions in NJ and NY. Read more about Dr. Warren here.

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