Recession meme: college is optional?

Will the middle class dream of a college education be a victim of the Recession?

Will the middle class dream of a college education be a victim of the Recession?

I’ve always found the notion of memes fascinating– discrete ideas that replicate and spread and mutate between individuals and groups. I’m always on the lookout for new memes that are racing across the cultural landscape (at least here in the U.S.) and think I’ve spotted a good candidate. Call it “college optional.” Its basically the notion that the long-treasured middle class dream of a college education for our children now has a big set of brackets around it, meaning “if.” College if you can afford it (and many white collar families no longer can). College if it will actually provide your kids with skills that they need to get and keep a well paying job. College if the states and the Federal government continue to subsidize the costs of liberal arts education and support the type of academic work and study that’s become the norm in the U.S.

These are a lot of if’s which is probably why you’re starting to see folks wondering (aloud) whether the kind of college education that our colleges and universities offer and that most middle class parents have dreamed of for their kids isn’t slipping out of reach. Given that its slipping out of reach, I guess its natural (or at least comforting) to wonder whether its really what’s best for our kids, anyway.

The latest voice trumpeting the “college optional” meme is the Wall Street Journal, where Sue Shellenbarger has  an article today titled “Rethinking Price and Value When Picking a College.” Her thesis: the economic dislocation caused by the global recession, coupled with skyrocketing costs of tuition at private colleges and universities (total costs up 67% at private colleges in the last decade and 84% at public universities) are forcing parents and their children to lower their horizons, and to question the real value of a degree from an “elite” university. Price consciouness reigns, families are spending less on education and state schools and community colleges are seeing burgeoning demand.

There are other voices as well.

  • NPR was just the latest outlet (after NYT, and others) to profile Matthew Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soul Craft, a book that preaches the virtues of working with your hands and actually learning hard skills as opposed to the soft skills common in our knowledge based economy. Crawford warns about an education monoculture in the U.S. that has deprived our economy of the skilled labor it needs to grow and succeed.
  • A friend (and B2 reader) pointed me to an opinion piece by Meagan Francis on (NOTE: link was broken when I tried it. Hopefully it will work by the time you do) about her intention to _not_ help her kids pay for college (while being supportive in other ways). Her thesis: a four year liberal arts education may not be the best preparation for the work world, while many graduating High School seniors aren’t ready to take their studies seriously anyway (so why pay for it).
  • Yet another friend pointed me (via Facebook) to this article from about the ways in which California’s budget crisis threatens the state’s long-treasured public university system. There’s more at question than just class sizes or programming choices: the role that higher ed plays in nurturing California’s economy (and the national economy) is really being questioned. One quote from Jack Miles, an English prof at UC Irvine struck me:

    “There are always people who call it frills and say ‘Who needs that? Who needs a symphony? Who needs a library?’ Those voices will always be around, and they become more compelling at a time of triage.… You may think that if you just provide the basics for everybody all will be fine, and you can skip the frosting on the cake. It may not actually work that way. It may be that you have to spend some money at the top,”
    he said.

Indeed, affordable, high quality public (and private) higher education has been a pillar of the American middle class since the 1940s, when the GI Bill sent millions of veterans to college after they served. As we all know, the original GI Bill was far more generous than what’s been offered more recent generations of soldiers: liberal in its definition of qualifying education programs and generous in its reimbursement of costs related to obtaining that education. My father — the youngest of six children and the only one to attend college (BC, as it turns out) did so on the GI Bill and still talks about what a great deal it was: paying a full ride at BC and putting some money in his pocket to take his girlfriend (now my mother) down to NYC to see some jazz, to boot.  Not such a bad thing.  A new take on the GI Bill, signed into law a year ago, is due to take effect on August 1 and should expand education benefits to soldiers who complained that the existing program often fell pitiously short of covering the costs of a college education.

The debate about what kind of education to offer our children filters down to towns like Belmont, as well, as we consider  how best to prepare them for what comes next — whether that be a two or four year college, or something else. As budget constraints threaten the ability of Belmont’s Public Schools to deliver the same kinds of services and classes that we consider core to our mission, look for a very similar debate to crop up about whether preparing the vast majority of students to enter four year colleges is what Belmont should be doing (and paying for).