The “Is College Worth it” Debate—Not a Debate Worth Having.
By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide
For those who know me well, I am considered a pretty even keeled person, not given to histrionics. However this week I began to boil. While the twittersphere and other media are engaged in a debate about the value of college and the congress considers more cuts to federal financial aid and states consider increases to public college tuitions, we learn that the net worth of minorities (Black and Hispanics) is between 16 and 18 percent less than that of whites. But wait, we also know that these populations are also the ones suffering the highest unemployment rates. And we also know that these are the populations who graduate from high school the least prepared for college and the least likely to go or persist if they do. And we know that those with a college degree earn at least 54% more than those without. These facts are all related. What they relate to is that Blacks and Hispanics, being educationally disadvantaged at every level, are ultimately denied the possibility of attaining the college degree that might put them in a position to narrow that net worth gap. And people (with college degrees….) debate whether college is worth it? Excuse me!
Generally I engage in calculated risk only. I know that what I am about to say may irritate colleagues in the academic world but there are others in that world who know exactly where I am coming from and are –perhaps quietly — in agreement. I am also not known as a conspiracy theorist—I generally think people are too disorganized to hold a major conspiracy together. Having had a wonderful 28 years with my Italian/French husband and having a very interracial family (that also includes Catholics, Jews, Unitarians and gays), I could hardly be called racist. But I could suggest that those in power ( predominantly white, mainly male, affluent and college educated) are behaving in ways with regard resource allocation in education impacting blacks and browns that smacks of both racism and conspiracy.
The reason I wrote my book, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide, was because as a dean or senior administrator in a variety of college settings I dealt with students who came to college unprepared, most often not just intellectually, but culturally. In places like Princeton there are very secure safety nets and resources to sustain students and subsequent high graduation rates. In places like Hunter, where the resources from public funding are slim, it is easier for students to drift, unaware that they could and should take advantage of resources there to help them. Students who do not come from privilege view college as an elite experience and one of which they often feel unworthy. They do not approach it or the resources offered like career offices, tutoring and writing centers, faculty office hours or advisers as the entitlements that their more savvy and affluent fellow students do. So they slip and slide their way out the door and until recently no one seemed to notice that only 25% of black males entering college were graduating or that nearly 50% of all students entering college were not finishing in 6 years.
My grandchildren will be the 5th generation in our family to go to college. I am the second generation to be both PhD’d and a college dean. Clearly I was a privileged member of an academic elite—especially as a black woman. What I grew up with was a culture of reading first and foremost. Kids who grow up in the inner city may not have access to books at home or people to read to them as I did. But it is the skill that predicts by third grade whether one will graduate from high school. My grandkids in an affluent Boston suburb have been in a program from birth practically that would have them “reading” 1000 books by first grade. The oldest at first grade had checked off over 600 by first grade and that did not include the books her parents and I bought for her and her sister. It is no surprise then that they are already well above grade level in reading. So if we want college graduates we need to encourage reading all the time everywhere. But urban libraries are closing in and out of schools. So much for preparation for those kids. And who tells their parents what the stakes are so they can either advocate for resources or make other plans?
We also need, on campuses, to get over ourselves in casting a disdainful eye on vocationality. The majority of leaders come from liberal arts backgrounds and narrow focus on career skills later. I support that strategy—IF faculty would be willing to help students understand why Anthropology can provide skills that are going to be workplace useful. That is the question parents and students are raising about the value of a college education cast in traditional terms. But the reality is, and has long been, that skills like critical thinking, communication, research, problem solving are available across the liberal arts spectrum. Where else did folks like Bowden College History major Kenneth Chenault learn what he needed to know to become CEO of American Express. There have been CEOs who were Religion majors and Psychology majors. But most faculty only stay in touch with those students who become the “mini-me” and follow the professor’s path to the doctorate and professoriate. They are often hard pressed to relate to a student the other things that the students who graduated in their major are doing with their lives. The career office gets to dig up that information –if they have the resources. But the student is more likely to go to someone in the department before declaring a major and ask “what can I do with this major”. We don’t arm faculty with responses to that question or they feel it is over vocationalizing the academy. Shall we get over ourselves and confront the reality that a college education is not a luxury but an economic necessity and is perceived as such by those who are footing the bill and paying our salaries? It is especially the hard pressed first generation, low-income and student of color for whom this question is most pressing. Are we going to serve their needs or not?
Guidance counselors and parents direct students in linear ways that may not serve them well, forcing a history buff to be a chem major and try for medical school which has nothing to do with his interest or aptitude. ( And anyway, most med school students majored in history or philosophy or psychology.) Or worse, students of color are directed to “majors” that will only limit their futures because they are too narrow—like data entry, or medical technician. Not that the jobs are not worthy—all work has value, but people need to be prepared for shifts in the economy and the demise of some careers as new ones emerge. So a purely vocational education still needs to be delivered or supplemented in a way that provides that intellectual agility. The liberal arts student has that intellectual flexibility. But no one points that out to the student in the inner city high school who is trying to figure out college.
Some programs like Harlem rbi and The Beginning with Children Foundation among others are beginning programs for college bound high school seniors or even before, to help prepare them for what college is really about. These students do not know what a syllabus is, who a bursar is or why they have to open campus emails and why walking away without guidance is financial disaster. None of it (again why I wrote my book.) Middle class kids with college educated parents are being hand held –perhaps excessively and for administrators annoyingly—through every step of the college process. They yelp at the tiniest slight. No concern exists for them about entitlement, but for the student who is not at all sure about how they fit in the world given a history of disadvantage and slight, they do not feel entitled to even ask questions. And we wonder why they do not succeed.
Not knowing why they are in college, not knowing how to navigate it to best advantage, not feeling empowered to have a voice in college and ask questions or seek help, Black and Brown students drop out and remain economically disadvantaged. We need to create a culture that makes college preparation systemic beginning with reading to toddlers and moving up the line to making inquiry acceptable and valued behavior. Every conversation I have with those preparing students for college acknowledges that the process has to start sooner. My oldest granddaughter at birth was given onesies from Smith, Bryn Mawr and Princeton. We set those expectations high and early. She should not be an exception. If college is now an economic necessity then this should be the norm—for all children regardless of ethnicity, national origin or income. There was a time in the Black community when this was more true and we lost that as the urban education landscape made people less and less ready to engage in college level work and the economics of college became more daunting. This is nuts for our country. As my father Whitney Young often pointed out, what happens to Black folks in our economy is like the canary in the coal mine. Our losses become the nations.
The question is not is college worth it but how can the purportedly smart people who influence policy shift to a mode of asking how can we better explain why it is worth it and how to make it viable for more who need it so desperately. Unless of course there is a racist conspiracy going on.