For Democracy, We Need to Treat College Education as a Public Good

Article excerpt

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Dennis Gilbert The Register-Guard

In his column in the Aug. 27 Register-Guard, Sriram Khe asks "Does U.S. oversell college?"

He answers yes, and invokes the old joke about jobs and college degrees with the punch line "Do you want fries with that?" He analyzes much of the value people place in college as coming from 1) "blind faith" in college leading to a better life, and 2) employers using college degrees in their "daunting task" of choosing one person over another, which gives degrees an inflated importance.

What is true is going to college requires a great deal of sacrifice for most people in the United States. Beyond cost, there's often the challenge of the unknown for the student because neither parent graduated. Succeeding often requires tremendous courage and faith in oneself. Portraying this as blind faith doesn't respect what many students face.

What is true is college degrees are sometimes used to unjustly privilege people in the United States. This doesn't come mainly from employers using college degrees to hire one person over another. It comes mainly from sustaining a workplace organization in which a few employees are privileged over many employees with the justification that the few have degrees even though these degrees are irrelevant to the job. There's justifiable resentment about this situation. However, as more people go to college, this justification becomes ineffective.

In contrast to the personal anecdotes Khe provides, consider the bigger picture:

India, where he grew up, just announced plans to build 40 new major colleges and universities to move India ahead.

The president of the U.S. Business Roundtable, among others, argues that the lack of scientifically literate people at the college level in the United States is threatening its global standing.

Numerous commentators have concluded that more universal college education is necessary for redressing inequality based on class, race or gender in the United States.

Clearly democracy cannot really exist without an educated citizenry.

And from the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: "The importance of education is not just practical: a well-educated, enlightened and active mind, able to wander freely and widely, is one of the joys and rewards of human existence."

Here's another perspective:

Until recently, relatively few people attended college in the United States. College was primarily for wealthy people to perpetuate their privilege and wealth, and to create the professionals to sustain the cultural and economic fabric of society. …