The College Question

In recent days the political news cycle has been crackling with two sides of the question of how important college is in the United States. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum attracted attention–most of it negative–for saying in Michigan that President Obama is “a snob” for saying that he wants everybody in America to go to college. Eugene Robinson, writing in The Washington Post, went so far as to say that “[o]nly a fool or a liar is unaware that higher education is all but a prerequisite for success in the post-industrial economy,” and went on to call Santorum hypocritical because Santorum himself has both an MBA and a law degree, and two of his own children are in college.

Santorum’s comments in Michigan, however, included this further elaboration: “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day, and put their skills to test, that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he (Obama) wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.” In other words, Santorum was espousing the position that a college education is not essential for success in America. He was, of course, also making the point that liberals may desire–abuse, even–the power of influence that comes with being a college professor, but I am not concerned here about the politics of this discussion. I am more concerned about the basic root issue of whether or not college really is important.

Marvin Olasky wrote an essay on this very subject that appeared in the January 14, 2012 issue of WORLD Magazine. Olasky asks several significant questions in the essay (i.e., “Do colleges help or hurt character formation?”) but he states, in his concluding paragraph: “I’m not at all suggesting that those called to be lawyers, doctors, professors, etc. should not go to college. I am suggesting that work as an electrician, landscaper, or X-ray technician, or in hundreds of other occupations that don’t require a four-year college degree, also glorifies God and should be honored by all of us.”

As someone who is a school superintendent, has three master’s degrees, and would gladly spend his life as a professional student if it were possible to do such a thing, one might (understandably) assume that I would come down on the side of urging students to go to college. It might surprise you, then, to know that that is not my position. On the contrary, I have seen more than enough evidence to know that college simply is not for everyone, and that pushing someone to go to college who either does not want to go or who does not know what he wants to do with his life is probably not a good idea–and is a potentially huge waste of money.

I am a firm believer that there are certain things that everyone needs to know in order to be, in the words of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., culturally literate. Beyond that, though, four (or more) additional years of education simply are not for everyone. Taking a year or two off to work and explore possible careers is not necessarily a bad idea for a high school graduate who is still unsure of the Lord’s calling for her future. Even if a student is certain he or she wants to get a college degree, starting in community college is not a bad idea, either. Classes are generally smaller, almost always are less expensive, and the credits will transfer to a 4-year school if a student does decide to go on for a bachelor’s degree.

It is also important to keep in mind that college is always going to be available. Perhaps now more than ever before it is easy for someone to take classes part-time, either in-person or through distance learning, and to get a college degree at any point. In other words, someone may get out of high school, work for a few years, and then decide that a college degree is essential in order to accomplish his or her career goals. I can just about guarantee you that that individual will be a much better student now that he has decided he wants to go get that degree than he would have been if he was forced/pressured to go to college when he was not ready or did not want to go.

I am certainly not anti-college, either. I think that if a young person knows what he or she wants to do, or at least has a strong idea, and is ready and desirous to go to college, then he or she should go, right out of high school if possible. I think college can be wonderful, both for the experiences and friendships as well as for the learning. The point is, we do not need to make this an absolute. Students who aren’t sure they’re ready for college should not be pressured to go. As Olasky suggests, there are plenty of positions in which someone can be very successful–and very happy–that will never require a college degree.

As an aside, I have not seen the full context of the remarks, but I don’t think President Obama was suggesting that everyone in America should have to go to college. More than likely he was simply suggesting that everyone in America who wants to be able to go should be able to do so. Just so happens, I agree with that, too.

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