By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.
During the previous presidential campaigns, one of the candidates suggested guaranteed free education for all citizens through a bachelor’s degree. This brought to mind an article I read in the early to mid ’90’s which claimed that a bachelor’s degree in the ’90’s had about the same power as a high school degree in the ’50’s.
Between 1910 and 1940, there was a vast expansion of high schools in the US. In 1950, only about half of the US population had a high school degree. Today, roughly 90% of the population has a high school degree, while only about 30% of the population has a bachelor’s degree. If you think about it, that means that it is about as difficult to finding a college graduate today as it would have been to find a high school graduate prior to 1950. As a result, employers will often seek college graduates for jobs that would have been filled by employees with high school graduates earlier.
In my personal opinion, somewhere along the way, our society has confused the concept of a guaranteed right to the opportunity for an education with a guarantee of a degree. Somewhere in the ’70’s, primary and secondary education teachers began to lose their authority. People started suing school systems whenever their children failed a course, which lead to school systems cracking down on teachers to prevent them from failing students. After a while, parents began suing school systems because their children were graduating from high school without being able to read.
This was, in my opinion, when we lost personal responsibility. It cannot possibly be the fault of the student when they fail to learn, so it must be the school’s fault. These issues remain problematic in America today, as evidenced by states like Ohio that, just a couple of years ago, proposed a two-tiered system: a diploma for students that reached certain standards of achievement, and a “certificate of attendance” for those who do not. Of course, the idea was struck down in the courts.
Most Americans would agree that every US citizen, regardless of socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, with the privatization of student loans, higher education seems to have lost its focus as an investment in favor of treatment as a money making industry. Because fewer students can afford college, today the focus on education is shifting from getting a degree to questioning the cost of the degree, and finding alternatives to get into the workforce more quickly and more economically. This is creating a crisis in education where schools are trying to figure out how to attract more students.
In my opinion, the concept of free education as raised in the previous campaign was good for making the issue and discussion of education reform front and center, but free education is probably not the answer. In my humble opinion, the component that is lacking in the proposal is one of accountability. I’m told that, in Russia, education through a bachelor’s degree is guaranteed, and the value of the bachelor’s degree has been lost. Today, a graduate degree or multiple bachelor’s degrees are needed to give college degrees value.
Here is an idea. Instead of a free education, let’s keep accountability while making higher education attainable for all citizens. To do so, we must first de-privatise student loans. In state schools, it’s the taxes of the citizens that keep the schools operating, so to have to pay for loans in order to attend them is inherently wrong to begin with. Instead, why don’t we begin with guaranteeing state or federal low interest student loans to cover state college tuition for all US citizens. These loans should be on a sliding scale. If you graduate with a 4.0 GPA, the loan can be completely forgiven. Between, say, 3.0 and 3.99, there is no interest on the loan (save, perhaps, penalty for failing to make timely payments). The lower the GPA, the higher the interest, up to the maximum for students who fail to get their degree.
Ultimately, what I am proposing is a middle ground. Instead of continuing in a system that is spiraling out of control, or moving to a system where lack of accountability can destroy the integrity of a bachelor’s degree. we should seek that middle ground where everybody can be guaranteed an ability to attend college, but it is up to the student to succeed.