Editorial: On heels of candidate's remarks, rethinking higher education

Posted by the Editorial Board

While individuals generally benefit – whether extrinsically or intrinsically – from further schooling, the education we receive at a four-year college like Skidmore is not for everyone. Americans, whether adults already in the work force or students just leaving high school should consider all of their post-secondary training options before enrolling. 

The issue of work force development has been brought back to the foreground by contenders for this year's presidential election. "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said while on a campaign stop in Michigan. "You're good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to tests that aren't taught by some liberal college professor."

Santorum was likely making reference to President Obama's statements to a joint session of Congress on February 2009, in which Obama called on every American to participate in additional training beyond that which they received in high school.

"I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training," Obama said. "This can be community college or a four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma."

While Rick Santorum clearly misapprehended President Obama's statements, he is correct, in as much has he says that college is not for everyone. While all Americans with the aptitude and academic drive should have the possibility of college attendance available to them, it would be ridiculous to have every American attend a four-year college.

For many Americans, a four-year degree would not suit their wants, needs and desires. Fortunately, our economy creates demands for workers with skill sets that four-year institutions do not provide.

To bridge the gap between the need for better trained workers and currently limited access to proper training, President Obama's proposed budget includes an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund.  This program aims at training two million workers in high-demand fields including health care, advanced manufacturing, clean energy, transportation and information technology. The type of training provided could lead directly to high-paying employment in these sectors of the economy. 

This program could not come at a more appropriate time.  Many states have cut funding for their state universities and community colleges.  When compounded with increases in tuition at these institutions, it is becoming increasingly difficult for people with limited means to receive the kind of training that leads to jobs. 

In addition to problems we face assuring the availability of vocational training, we have problems sending the right students to college. The graduation rate for four-year colleges rests at around 60 percent. Though reasons for dropping out are numerous, over-encouragement of high school students is at least partly to blame. 

At 18 years old, though legally adults, most of us have not had any appreciable life experience. We may not be mature enough to decide what it is that we want to do with the rest of our lives. Though many people do discover their calling in college, this can be expensive, especially if that calling does not require a four-year degree. Navigating a course catalog of hundreds of classes can be a daunting task for college freshman  many of whom may change their major or drop-out. 

High school counselors should refocus getting students to think about all of their post-secondary education options. With the reputations of many high schools dependent on the percentage of their students they send to college, there is a push to send all students, even those who are not ready or for whom college is not their best option. 

One solution worthy of consideration is the gap year. At many institutions of higher education, including our own, accepted students have the option of taking gap years. Students can defer their studies one year and still be guaranteed a place when they return. Students can use this time to gain work experience, or consider what it is that they would like to do for a living.  

Our country can benefit form a better-trained and more efficient work force. Keeping the United States competitive in the global economy will demand more training on behalf of our workers.  As a branch of American society with a stake in all of this, we at Skidmore should remember to avoid old, reliable and perhaps comfortable ways of thinking as questions such as these evolve.

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