Last week, while enjoying an otherwise quiet boys meal at home, my 7 year old Ian said one of the scariest things I've ever heard either of our boys say.
In the middle of a general conversation about college, my 9 year old Elliott innocently stated, unaware of the uproar he was about to trigger, that he wasn't sure he'd go to college. I didn't think anything of it. I was perfectly prepared to go on to the next topic and my next fork full of spaghetti. That wasn't the case with Ian, though. He abruptly stopped eating, looked straight at Elliott, and forcefully declared his verdict:
"Well I guess you're just going to have a horrible life then Elliott."
I chuckled at Ian. He confidently threw that out there assuming the wisdom of a 52 year old father. But then I panicked. I had no idea where that came from. I still don't. As parents Katie and I don't push or even encourage our boys to think about college. We tell them God has gifted them with specific gifts and passions. Our mission is to help them discover them. If they then decide college will better prepare them to use those talents, by all means, college might be a good idea. But if not, I'm sorry Ian. I don't believe that sentences you to a horrible life.
I did ask Ian why he thought that way about college. He said the only way you can get a good job is if you go to college. I pressed him. Tell me what you're idea of a good job is. He said one where you make a lot of money.
I responded with three things:
Ian's comment was most scary because it indicates my 7 year old is adopting our culture's generally accepted measure of what a non-horrible life looks life: a life that holds a college degree and makes a lot of money.
One of our presidential candidates is committed to writing that measure into our culture forever. A pillar of Hillary Clinton's campaign is to invest 350 billion dollars - thats illions with a B - to make college free for just about everyone that wants to go. (Clinton's debt-free college plan).
I'm not going to use this post to discuss when free really isn't free. I'm not going to discuss the number of examples of more becoming less when our government gets its hands on the more. But I will offer the opinion that it's a bad philosophy to promote the idea that humans are less without more education. Especially given that in this country we've completely narrowed the definition of educated to mean college educated.
Mark Edwards, executive director of Opportunity Nation, a campaign to increase economic opportunity in America, recently said it best: "We've done a disservice in this country by suggesting that there's only one path to success, which is to get a bachelor's degree."
The idea of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into free college education in this country under the premise of equal opportunity for all is a feel good, sound good, campaign soundbite that ignores deeper issues.
Like, for example, that 40% of college students who begin the pursuit of a bachelors degree don't have one 6 years after they start it. I would argue that's because a large potion of them began that pursuit motivated entirely by the idea if they didn't get a college degree they were "going to have a horrible life." They had no idea or curiosity of what they were good at. They had no end vision for college other than securing a degree.
It's not hard to imagine why that is. Our public education system has become higher education's minor leagues. Earlier and earlier K-12 students are placed on the college prep conveyor belt. The belt motors along at a Dale Earnhardt Jr. clip for thirteen years. It zips through lap after lap of rote memorization and testing. And less and less often does the conveyor belt stop long enough for anyone, most importantly the student, to scream, "hey, college isn't for me!" No one gets a chance to say I'm done with school. No mas. No one feels comfortable enough to say I'm just not college material.
And that's the other part that gets ignored in this free college plan. The number of students who are eliminated from being college material before they ever get to the K on the conveyor belt. I will always believe our boys had an educational head start because they attended an exceptional pre-school for the 4 years leading up to that K. The fact that millions of young people don't have that privilege is a problem that will never be solved by offering them free tuition 15 years later. To be fair, both Clinton and President Obama have offered up solutions to this challenge, but those solutions come in the form of relatively few millions - not billions.
So I'm sorry, Ian, if you want to see someone destined for a horrible life, I'll show you someone that's not prepared for kindergarten, not someone who doesn't go to college.
I'm saying I'd like to see us do what we don't often do well in this country. Start addressing the problem at it's root and not at it's high profile, political jackpot, reactionary end. If we're going to have the rich people fund initiatives in this country, let's start with the idea it's devastating that one person doesn't get to start their educational life on fair footing and simply unfortunate if everyone can't exit college debt-free. Let's start by insisting every high school student in this country has a chance to jump off the conveyor belt and into a trade or vocational school without the stigma they've somehow failed to live up to or live out the American dream.
As for me and our sons. I hold on to one dream. That they will both discover they have a purpose in this world. The impact that purpose makes on the people around them will always be a greater measure of their lives than the degrees or certificates they earn while pursuing and fulfilling it.