February 27, 2012

Learning for earning’s sake

President Obama’s emphasis on obtaining a college degree ignores the equally vital role vocational schools play in producing jobs.

“Inflating the value of college ultimately devalues a college degree. This country needs to go to work.”

-Rick Santorum on schools

This is the only time I will ever write this: I agree with Rick Santorum. The blind squirrel of last century’s sexual ethics and theocratic conservatism found an acorn last week.

You’ve likely seen or heard the quotation by now. Speaking in Michigan in advance of Tuesday’s primary, the former Senator said, “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob.” He then returned to form and hopped aboard the crazy train, adding something about “indoctrination,” evil liberal professors, et cetera. But there was a nugget of truth there, I promise.

Calling the President a “snob” wouldn’t be my first instinct, but then again, I’m not campaigning. Yet this much is true: The President has established a college degree as the standard of educational achievement, which means that everything else is, by definition, sub-standard. And that’s wrong.

I haven’t found any evidence verbatim from the President to back Santorum’s words. But if President Obama hasn’t said exactly tha, he has at least danced around it, saying everything but. His preference for Americans to go to college is clear—he puts a premium on a four-year degree.

For example, in his 2011 State of the Union, the President warned, “The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations. America has fallen to ninth [in the world] in the proportion of young people with a college degree.” I’m not sure the latter point deserves to be given the same urgency as the former, which concerns the real, legitimate failure of our nation’s public schools.

To be sure, the President’s premium on a college degree is in tune with the market’s. You know the statistics: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a college degree-holder earns almost twice as much over the course of her lifetime compared to a high school graduate—$2.1 million to $1.2 million, respectively. But vocational training can have the same effect, and the President knows it. In his State of the Union address last month, he praised the cooperation between a North Carolina robotics plant and a local community college to fund vocational training that allows workers to gain new skills and job prospects.

And that’s what this is really about: Jobs. It’s in the President’s interest—it’s in America’s interest—that our workers be employed. I ask my fellow students of this ivory bastion of theory, not practice: Who has the better chance of finding a job by June, someone with an associate’s degree in automotive robotics, or us? The last thing I want is a debate about the value of the life of the mind. But understand that it’s in the economic interest of our nation that our people are taught to work, not just think, and vocational training is best suited to this need.

In other words: So what if we’re globally ninth in college degrees? Not everyone has the desire or talent to hack it at a four-year school. Yes, too many of our nation’s promising young people can’t afford college, and that needs fixing. I support the President’s efforts to make college more affordable. He wants to expand and strengthen federal grant programs that have made my education here possible. He wants to incentivize universities to provide more funding for low-income students. Often, and sensibly, he praises the role junior colleges play in our communities and economy. I applaud his efforts to give Americans equal opportunity.

But I get frustrated when the President sullies his platform of equal opportunity with talk that assumes equal ambition. Education that ensures a livable income and a stable livelihood is most important. The reasons our economy remains in tender condition are many and varied, as are the reasons unemployment levels remain high. But consider the jobless college graduate. Could it be that the reason a college degree matters less is because too many people have them? A four-year degree shouldn’t be the default option. Not every student can generate the return on a liberal arts education that makes the (often debt-creating) investment worth it. A message from the bully pulpit that implies otherwise is harmful.

Don’t drop out now—the education provided here can co-exist with the one that puts Americans back to work in reparative, globally leading numbers. How will we be a part of that recovery?

Adam Gillette is a fourth-year in the College majoring in History.