Friday, July 22, 2011

College downgraded, prospects diminished

Some very bright kids are deciding that for them, college is not worth the hassle and the expense. They may be right. But for the country, it may be horribly wrong.

College graduates once were seen as part of a larger civic good. Now, more and more, they are seen simply as cogs in a broken economic machine.

Instead of taking their success and heading out to find their fortune, as many as 85 percent of this year's college graduates are returning home because there's no job for them and they don't know where else to go.

The future is problematic. The rules of the economic game are changing, the costs of college keep rising and society seems willing to have students take on ever more crushing debt.

The unemployment statistics are staggering. Adults under age 25 face unemployment rates as high as 54 percent. With large student loan payments pressuring these once elite citizens, May's graduates are competing with both their peers and the graduates of previous years for even entry-level jobs.

State legislators, in their pursuit of cutting expenses, seem to see college as a private good that benefits the graduate rather than a public good of having an educated populace. Thus, in state after state, they continue to slash higher education budgets. Supposedly bothered by the resulting rising costs, some of these states are turning to college education on the cheap, supporting moves to shorten the time required for a degree or moving college entirely online.

This path of cutting public funding and increasing private debt reduces the pursuit of a college education to a commercial exchange: You give me your tuition money, I give you a ticket to a future paycheck. This commercial exchange eliminates the idea that college is more than a trade school.

College should be about learning how to be a well-informed citizen, discussing how you know what you know, understanding other cultures and our own, and living for a time in a world of ideas and beauty expressed through art, dance, music and debate. It should be about fueling the intellect, philosophy and vision of the future leaders of our country and our world.

Ironically, the idea of college as a commercial exchange is also proving to be an illusion. Guaranteed paydays have disappeared as well, lost either to Mumbai or automation. Students lured by the hope of brighter futures built on a college education are being left with only one certainty: Someone will collect on that student loan.

Surely, the richest and most inventive nation in the world should be able to offer its young adults—and itself—better prospects than this.

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