Collectively, we as Americans have conceded that a post-secondary degree is a necessary prerequisite for most of the self-sustaining, forward-moving jobs out there. However, a post-secondary degree is financially and culturally hard to come by.  Our lawmakers and politicians have focused their attention on lowering the prohibitive costs and admissions standards in order to make the post-secondary degree more affordable and accessible to citizens of all backgrounds, interests, and industries. They have debated over interest rates and cost-cutting measures and as a result we have come to the conclusion that a self-sustaining, forward-moving career is hard to come by because college isn’t affordable enough. The blame is placed implicitly on the government, state or federal, because we perceive them to have failed to provide accessible college educations for its citizens.  I explicitly agree that the blame falls on the government, but I insist that their responsibility does not come in the form of affordable post-secondary education.

The Population Reference Bureau recently completed a 30 year-long study to measure the pay-offs of a college degree. Their findings were largely in favor of college graduates:
“With the decline of manufacturing jobs and other economic changes, the average incomes have stagnated or declined in real terms for people with a high school education in recent decades […] the percentage [of students going to college] reached its highest level ever in 2009 when 70 percent of high school graduates ages 16 to 24 were enrolled in an institution of higher education. From the 1950s through the 1970s, barely one-half of high school graduates went to college, but both high school graduation rates and college attendance have increased since then.”

The study was comprehensive and well-executed so there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of their findings.This information demonstrates an incredible social progression of education and attainment for our society. It suggests that from 1979 through 2008 there was expansive intellectual growth that was made more accessible and therefore more beneficial to society as a whole. It further suggests that our society is in a better psychological and educational place as a result of these achievements.

It’s worth pointing out that statistics cannot speak for context. In the 1950’s college was largely unattainable for artificial reasons – race, gender, religion,etc. As a direct consequence of this initial injustice, the progress we have experienced was largely to erase the artificial barriers to higher education. The civil rights movements focused on eliminating prejudicial language from Admissions books and guidelines and mandating an objective admissions process. They did not focus on lowering the standards of admission or demanding  scholarship money for hard-pressed students. During this time, college was still seen as a private investment, not a public entitlement. Students who did not qualify or could not afford college would find other work and make their career in that industry. They were prepared throughout high school with the knowledge and traits necessary to execute the duties of the average workplace efficiently and productively, and additional schooling was not required in order to simply function in the workforce.

Today, that path is less and less viable, as the industries which require a high school diploma or less are dwindling and the number of jobs that require further education become predominant. But simultaneously, the cost of college has become more unattainable on average. In 1975 the average annual cost of a college education  across all types of  4-year institutions was $2,679, and the average American income was $10,540.Today the average annual cost of a college education, across the all types of 4-year institutions, is $27,000 and the average income is $50,054#. In 1975, college cost approximately 25% of the average annual income; today it’s closer to  54% of the average annual income.

From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, one half of high school graduates went to college, and the employment rate for those college graduates was phenomenal. It was not at all uncommon for a student to graduate college with a full-time, career-track job offer on the table.  It was during this era,when our society began to imagine a college degree as the magical ticket to long-term, worthwhile employment – complete with insurance, benefits, and pension.  This is when parents began to gear set their parental sights on the children attending college and secondary schools began to gear their curriculum towards college admissions. On this model, we  built the great middle-class of America, wherein we collectively rejected wage gaps and wealth disparities, at least in theory, and instead executed a society that was as close to egalitarian as we’ve ever come.  The mythical power of the college education and the role it played in this development has had a long-lasting effect on our collective social psyche. We founded new colleges, eliminated educational segregation, enacted race-blind admissions processes, and incentivized the college education. In short, we made great strides towards equalizing the educational, and therefore the workforce, playing-field, across genders, races, religions, and other diversities.

However, instead of focusing on the need to improve college accessibility and reduce student debt, the government should be focusing on how to improve the only mandatory education it has for its citizens – public school systems. If students are not graduating high school with the basic skills and knowledge necessary to function productively and successfully in our society, then the government is failing its citizens. Education is a social and economic imperative for a healthy and productive society. Quality education produces citizens who are self-aware, dutiful and law-abiding members of society, and more flexible in their workplace and career paths, but it is dangerous to begin a path where the education which maintains that social health must be privately  financed.

The Huffington Post published an article which laments that, “by 2018, two-thirds of new and replaced jobs will require some form of post-secondary education.Additionally it is estimated that “14 million jobs requiring post-secondary education will go unfulfilled in the next decade” . I question whether or not these new jobs will truly “require” a post-secondary education. On the whole, there are very few workplace skills that students learn in college that cannot be learned outside of a University setting, and instead could learn in job-training or supplemental classes. Medical care, legal professions, engineering, research methods, and extremely high level math and science professionals all fall into the category of “post-secondary education required”. But I cannot imagine that America is going to suddenly have the need for 14 million new doctors, lawyers, and PhD’s in the next 5 years. Rather, I believe these numbers are based on the fact that students learn  basic skills such as written and verbal communication, and chart or data reading in college. But these are not complicated skills and they are certainly not confined to a University institution. If these skills are truly necessary for future citizens to function as a meaningful and productive members of society, then we should focus on expanding the content and style of elementary and secondary education in order to fit the fluctuating socioeconomic issues we face as a country.

Post-Secondary education cannot be a prerequisite to a productive workforce because, in America, higher education is mostly a privatized industry, and in that regard it is largely unattainable. When we base an individual’s success  in the workplace and in their civic duties on whether or not they can afford the “right” life, we have regressed back to an aristocracy. The prevalent mindset that college provides citizens with the basic needs and knowledge necessary to live a productive life, demonstrates a failure of the American social mechanism . If our government cannot provide the basics for every citizen to become a successful and contributory member of society, then our government is shirking its primary purpose – to protect and provide for the people .