Most Can Benefit From College

The public opinion of higher education has been steadily declining over the past decade as tuition has skyrocketed and unemployment rates in some industries have remained abysmal. Many people argue that college degrees are not worth the debt most students incur because they don’t make good on promises. That is, a college degree used to be an almost-sure ticket to upward mobility, but now it is often a one-way ride to indebtedness. Liberal arts colleges have taken the biggest hit in terms of public support, and yet the rationale for such vitriol leaves me perplexed.

In fact, in a recent article in The Atlantic appropriately titled “The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone,” Bryan Caplan argues that college just isn’t worth the time and effort for most students. Although it is an argument one might expect from the author of a book called “The Case Against Education,” it is easy to balk at his doom and gloom perspective given that as a tenured college professor, he continues to benefit from those seeking a college degree.

His main argument is that college does not “teach students useful job skills.” While he acknowledges that statistics show that college graduates make 73 percent more than those who have only a high-school diploma, he questions their preparedness for those higher paying jobs. He claims that college graduates have neither the hands-on skills nor the critical thinking skills needed for the contemporary workplace. He argues that the more students go to college the more our society struggles with what he calls “credential inflation.”

Who does he say should go to college? In his words, “an academically well-prepared 18-year-old.”

As someone who has taught college English for 21 years, I agree that liberal arts colleges might not be for everyone.

I know, however, that everyone could benefit from learning about human history, civics, art, biology, and all of the other subjects that liberal arts colleges bring together for students in four years.

I also believe that Caplan is making an elitist argument. By limiting college attendance to young people who are “academically well-prepared” for four-year degree programs, he is espousing elitism in the most obvious of ways.

While it is true that my job is harder when students come to me underprepared to meet the challenges of the college classroom, some of the most brilliant minds I have encountered in my two decades of teaching have started out behind and eventually vaulted over those “academically well-prepared” students. Of course, we lose some of those students Caplan thinks we should reject as they discover that their K-12 educations and life experiences have left them wildly disadvantaged, but many of those students do make it.

And herein lies the crux of my opposition to Caplan’s point, which I find to be prejudice disguised as concern: When we limit access to higher education to “academically well-prepared 18-year-olds,” we remain gatekeepers barring the doors of full civic participation and upward mobility from groups of people who are already disadvantaged. We know who these people are that exist outside of Caplan’s brass ring. They attend underfunded school districts. They live in unsafe neighborhoods. Their parents work multiple jobs to keep food on the table.

When I hear “college is not for everyone,” I am reminded that I was once a person for whom Caplan would discourage college attendance: a high-school dropout from a West Virginia trailer park. And yet, schools like our own West Liberty University accepted me with no reservations. Armed with a Ph.D., I have now helped bring into the world more than 3,000 college graduates, many of whom Caplan would have denied entry into one of the last remaining opportunities for achieving prosperity in this country.

Don’t worry, I’ll leave the light on for you all.

Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania and a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University. She lives in Wheeling.