It was Robert Frost who wrote the familiar poem about two roads diverging in a yellow wood and at the end of the poem the author is pleased to have taken the road less traveled. Or perhaps Yogi Berra’s version, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Mariner has known many older, older folk, some born before 1900, who, when deciding whether to attend college, followed the advice of both gentlemen. If one wanted to be nothing more than to be a polished, genteel and astute person, there was only one path: enroll in college. Just as absolute, if one wanted to work in a pleasant job that paid more than union labor or walk-in hiring rates, one took the only road – graduate from college.
During mariner’s time this option prevailed; one had to go to college to be recognized as smart and to be a participating contributor to the greater human experience. A college degree was the discriminator between being a cashier or an accountant; a store clerk or an entrepreneur; a salesman or a lawyer. Mariner had to make this choice in his own life: sustain the simple joys of youth by working for an income that would allow that lifestyle to continue or go to college and have the opportunity to be creative and tackle new responsibilities. It was a difficult choice that mariner made only belatedly in his mid-twenties.
Only since the GI Bill has this singular path begun to have a different objective. For the most part, a college degree no longer represents a genteel and polished person; completing a Liberal Arts major doesn’t provide much after graduation. In fact, many small ‘liberal arts’ colleges are dropping that major altogether.
At the same time, however, the higher the cost of a college degree, the more exclusive will be the job opportunities. The divide between labor jobs (including white collar labor jobs) and educated jobs has risen to whether one wishes to be middle class or upper middle class. Just ask Lori Loughton (found guilty of bribery trying to register her daughter in the proper college).
What has changed is the number of students pursuing college degrees. In 1940, 5 percent of the US population had college degrees; in 2017, 33 percent had college degrees. As an economic market, one could say demand is greater than supply – hence the endless increase in college tuition. It follows that the higher the cost, the more return is expected by students. This has led to a new relationship where colleges have turned to skill training and collaboration with corporations for job placement. Today, it isn’t one’s book learning and genteelness, it’s the job skill one has at graduation.
The new line of discrimination is whether one has a graduate degree. Jobs known as STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are the new discriminator for being ‘educated’ as well as the traditional ones, medicine, law and business. The graduate level is required increasingly because there are so many Bachelor graduates that exclusivity requires an additional degree.
Mariner is reminded of an old joke from a British comedian describing the need for a few good soldiers during WW II: a man walks into a recruiter’s station and says, “Please, sir, I’d like to join the few.” “I’m sorry” the recruiter says, “There are far too many.”
Mariner apologizes for too many nuances. A summation will say:
- College is socially discriminatory. It takes extra money to go to college. Those without money are greatly disadvantaged and will not participate in the fringe benefits of a more comfortable lifestyle.
- As a percentage of population, if the number of college graduates increases, the privileged status diminishes. Elitism becomes more important defined by certain colleges, e.g., Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, etc. Further, it requires a graduate degree to sustain an educated persona.
- Culturally, the purpose for attending college has changed dramatically from a time when going to college was limited to the elite/intellectual class and was more or less a finishing school. Today, going to college is a virtual necessity to obtain a job with growth potential and decent wages.
- As a means of rounding out maturity, college still helps but the tone has become less erudite and more commonplace primarily because of the high percentage of students versus the general population.
As to the future, mariner suspects college will become the fourth step in public education behind elementary, middle and senior schools. This is just as well because the entire society, the definition of jobs, income and employment rights are changing dramatically. It is likely that both the government and business interests will oversee cost and content.
 In past posts mariner described the education system in Taiwan. All education through college is paid by the government. College seats are limited and filled competitively using an entrance exam similar to the US SAT score. A choice other than standard college, everyone attends a buxiban (bushyban) which provides trade and developmental education. Interestingly, buxiban is available to any citizen at any time in life from kindergarten through adulthood.