Bold headlines scream that only 53% of 2020 Indiana high school graduates were in college in 2021. Indeed, that percentage has dropped consistently over the past few years to a dangerous low. One in five drop out of high schools. The news bodes ill for the future of Indiana and the country.
Media attacks on higher education provide a dark background. A recent column mocks colleges, college education and faculty members, while implying that the author could have been successful without college. Others stress the high cost of collegiate education and debts incurred by graduates, some of whom are considered failures because they do not command high incomes. For-profit diploma mills are exposed because they conspire with some people to enroll, get government loans, hand over fraudulent tuition and fees, and then default on loans. No wonder citizens become suspicious of higher education.
Such media clatter drowns out reputable survey reports showing that lifetime income of college graduates greatly exceeds that of high school graduates. Relatively poorly paid college graduates in helping professions are generally more satisfied in their jobs than others. High earning capacity is not the sole measure of flourishing in life or of contributing to the welfare of society. Many government loans go to fraudulent for-profit organizations, but others are for graduate degrees in fields like law, business and medicine, that enable repayment of loans. Some poor students require need-based loans, Pell grants, and college scholarships, and thereafter contribute significantly to our future welfare. Government officials are trying to determine how to help this latter group, without providing windfalls for the former.
The first essential goal of education is to enable a person to learn more. A wise person said that one does not learn in order to know; rather, one knows in order to learn. Education for the future does not produce warehouses of knowledge to be recited on demand; not warehouses but basic content and disciplines of learning as preparation for lifelong learning. Unfortunately, some pseudo-education provides only tools for imprisonment in entry-level jobs, but not the ability to learn and adapt to earn promotions. The second goal of education is to raise one’s horizons and empower creativity that will bring satisfaction and joy in any area one wants to pursue. Such education prepares graduates to provide for themselves and their families and to flourish and enjoy a good life. Stories and data from Wabash College confirm the value of college education, which are more convincing than the nipping at the heels of excellent institutions by some pundits.
One hastens to say that not all high school graduates need college education. Indeed, some students have abilities, skills and interests that lead them toward jobs that bypass college. One thinks of highly trained workers who design, manufacture, install and repair all kinds of things. Many institutions, including some community colleges, house excellent programs for certifications in those areas. These, too, might enable workers to provide for families and enjoy a good life.
Be warned, however: serious advanced education is essential to escape minimum wage jobs with little hope for promotion – jobs that will change dramatically or disappear over the next decades. Leapfrogging developments in technology and management demand more abilities and skills for entry-level jobs, along with the ability for lifelong learning to advance amidst future developments. Future up-skilling and re-skilling require the basic ability to learn at sophisticated levels. Operating a computer in a combine or running distribution lines requires more education than handling a shovel or carrying a box. We must not degrade colleges, but instead support all forms of education for our young people that will teach them how to learn and to flourish. Our future welfare depends on that!
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in Humanities emeritus, contributed to this guest column.