Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Opportunity, Liberty, and College

By Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D

If you’ve already packed your beach reading for the summer, it’s time to make room for two more articles—and perhaps a thesaurus. Both address an important part of the question of college most people don’t consider, especially during the school year, so their timing is perfect, and their message is important.

“Bachelor’s degree: Has it lost its edge and value?” is the lead story in the June 18th edition of The Christian Science Monitor.  Lee Lawrence’s work covers ground that is familiar to many educators, as the article reconsiders the long-standing assumption that a Bachelor’s degree is the best road to economic prosperity.
Nicely supplemented with case studies that show there are multiple paths to sound employment that go through, around, and short of the route to a four-year college, the article gives the same advice about postsecondary plans most counselors give about using rankings to choose the right college:  One size doesn’t fit all. This is a wonderful piece all parents should read, and one all counselors should pass along to the families they serve.  I can’t think of a better way to begin a serious conversation about individualizing plans for life after high school.

While Lawrence’s article focuses on the individual trees of economic opportunity, a piece written by the editors of N+1 magazine evaluate all of America’s cultural green space, and clearly don’t like what they see.  “Death by degrees” uses some of the same themes as Lawrence’s piece about the rising number of Bachelor’s degrees and concludes that America is creating an intellectual elitism that is already skewing access to power in myriad ways.  Consider, for example, that almost two-thirds of President Obama’s first thirty-five Cabinet members came from elite colleges, or that every member of the US Supreme Court attended either Yale or Harvard—a first in US history.

When read together, the two stories paint a future of higher education that ought to give us all pause.  Lawrence’s article tries to point out that there are many paths to individual economic success, and not all include a college education.  That can be seen as good news for everyone who wants to make a living and put a roof over their heads, but the N+1 article reminds us that this rush for credentials of any kind is pushing up the value of a rare few credentials, such as degrees from prestigious colleges and the need for advanced degrees—and that can further concentrate the social, economic, and political power of our nation into the hands of a very few.
The American theme of children wanting a better life than their parents is leading more students to seek training after high school.  That focused energy may lead our country to more opportunities and better solutions, but it could also lead to a raising of the leadership bar that could make access to parts of that better life even more remote.  That may be too much to consider while we watch the kids play Marco Polo, but it’s worth a thought as we look at a sky full of fireworks, and wonder if our current construct of opportunity may muffle the ideals they represent.

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