Is a 4-Year College Education a Nice-to-Have or a Need-to-Have?

graduationI read a lot of articles about education and sometimes one of these articles really hits hard. Today, in the New York Times, there was an article entitled “Why I defaulted on My Student Loans.” In this author’s pursuit to study English, his passion, and to become a writer, he acquired a lot of debt.

As we grow older, and I hope wiser, we begin to grasp the fundamental difference between a nice-to-have and a need-to-have. Which of these two scenarios is a college education? I have been on this earth for 49 years, and I think I’m beginning to understand the answer. Because, I too, have had a similar experience with college but with a more fortunate outcome.

I was an average student in high school. I got A’s in the classes I liked, notably English, and I got C’s and even a few D’s — in Math and Science. But I strongly wanted to go to college, even though some people might have said I was not college material. I even wonder if I would have been admitted today. I went to a large state university, which I ended up loving.

In college, I loved my English and Psychology courses, and hated Math. I got a C in the one Math class that I took, along with many other C’s and a few D’s in the various Science courses that I was required to take as Gen Ed requirements. I scraped through with a slightly lower than a B average. However, I have no regrets or question the value of my college education. Even in the courses where I got C’s, I still learned a lot, but my passion was not there. Furthermore, the cost of my college tuition was manageable, and it was paid for by my parents. But even for the people I knew who had debt, they were not concerned, because they knew that they were working hard to learn what was important to them, and that they would be able to pay it back.

Many people are beginning to advocate that a 4-year college education ought to be free. But I do believe that it will bankrupt this country if everyone were given a free 4-year college education. I would much rather retire at a reasonable age with social security than to provide every student with a 4-year degree whether they truly want it or not.

That said, it should be available for those who really want it. And there is only one way I think that this can be done. It is to bring back “grading on a curve.” I advocated for this approach in a previous post, and it was met with with some disgust. If we had a grading scale of 10% A’s, 15% B’s, 40% C’s, 15% D’s and 10% F’s, anyone who wanted to go to a 4-year state college, could go. We could greatly reduce the all-encompassing emphasis on testing for admittance, because anyone who met a reasonable baseline criteria would be accepted. They would know that they would have to work very hard because the grading scale would be tough. But for those who really wanted to work hard, college was available to them. We could reduce tuition, to a reasonable amount, like it was in the past. And back then, a C meant something. It meant that you went to class and did the work.

That said, community colleges should be free, but they should only offer two-year degrees. No more transferring from community colleges to 4-year schools. In fact, we could get rid of grading in Community Colleges altogether and pass everyone who meets a certain criterion. Right now 40% of students at 4-year colleges drop out, with debt. Wouldn’t it have been better to go to a community college and get a 2-year degree first. At least they would have something to show for their time. They can always go on to get a 4-year degree later — and we can allow for some transfer of credits — perhaps a year’s worth.

But back to my story. By the beginning of my Junior year, I was forced to declare a major. I declared Psychology, against the advice of my Adviser, who said that I would never get a job with a Psychology degree. Instead, I should major in business and get a minor in Psychology, he said. But I loved the field, so I declared it anyone. I graduated with no debt, but with a strong passion for writing and for understanding how people learn. I went on to graduate school in Education, and had an assistant-ship. So luckily again, no debt.

My first few years after college were rough, and I had to take many short-term gigs till I got going. But I eventually became a technical writer and instructional designer, weaving my love of writing and learning, to better help people understand technical content in the workplace. Could I have done this with massive debt? I don’t think so.

Allow those people who truly want to learn and achieve to go to a 4-year university at a reasonable price. All others should start out at community colleges, and get a 2-year degree first.


About chbernat

I am a technical writer and instructional designer. I have an intense interest in adult learning and instructional design principles. I greatly feel that adults need to take control of their own learning in order to advance their knowledge and skills throughout life.
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