Saturday, September 16, 2006

Undoing Past Progress

I read two articles today in the New York Times today that got me thinking about how we are undoing the benefits that first made our country the place it was when I was growing up. The first article was about the increase in people in my age group without health insurance. I understand firsthand what they were talking about - not because I do not have health insurance, but because I had to spend more than 10% of my pretax paycheck to pay my portion of the company sponsored health plan. To put that in perspective - I was making something close to the national median income (if I remember correctly what that figure was).

The second article was about why college educations are no longer affordable and what changes have caused that problem. I have long had strong feelings about this problem. I think that the fundamental problem here is that we have lost sight, as a society, of what we were trying to accomplish with tuition assistance and other forms of federal education assistance in the first place. From the article:

By subsidizing public universities to keep tuition low, and providing federal tuition aid to poor and working-class students, this country vaulted tens of millions of people into the middle class while building the best-educated work force in the world.

Another article at CNN elaborated on this by saying the following:

"There's been a sea change in the last decade-and-a-half over how (colleges) spend their money," said National Center president Patrick Callan. "It used to be about giving students opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have. Now it's about giving them money to go to one college instead of another."

At first these programs were designed so that there would be money for students to go to college, now the money is being used for students to go to "the right college." We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the goal was to educate large volumes of people, not to make education one more field for competition in our society.

Some startling statistics to back this up from the CNN article:

The report card finds colleges awarded grants to 36 percent of their students from families earning $20,000 per year or less. Those grants averaged $4,700. But wealthier students received comparable attention.

The colleges gave grant aid to 29 percent from families earning $100,000 or more. And those grants were even higher on average: $6,200.

Let me make that clear - slightly over 1/3 of students from families living in poverty (or very close depending on where the poverty line falls) are getting under $5000 a year to help them go to school. Almost 2/3 of students from those poverty situations are going to school without grant money. At the same time nearly 1/3 of students from families among the top 5% of wage earners are getting over $6000 a year - we can assume this is to lure them to "better" schools.

I do not mean to argue that all schools are equal, but we would probably be better off as a nation if we thought of them that way.

If my experience and the experience of other people I know is any indicator, there is another problem that also plagues our nation with regards to higher education. The degrees that we are paying so dearly to get are often being underused once we graduate and try to use them. Many jobs I have seen require a degree for work that could easily be done without a degree. What is worse, many jobs in which a degree is useful are more interested in experience than in the degree. I have known many people who choose to work and gain experience rather than finish a degree and they end up with better jobs because they have more experience.

If experience is the best teacher - and I believe that it generally is - then our college degrees should be designed to provide marketable experience. If they did, perhaps companies could eliminate the requirement to have a degree as a prerequisite for jobs that do not actually require the training that comes with a degree.

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