Who needs college anyway?

With the sluggish economy, many college students, struggling to find work - such as these, at Temple University - are, instead, turning to graduate school in hopes that the extra level of education will make the difference, or postpone the pain.
With the sluggish economy, many college students, struggling to find work - such as these, at Temple University - are, instead, turning to graduate school in hopes that the extra level of education will make the difference, or postpone the pain. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: February 20, 2012

PRESIDENTIAL hopeful Rick Santorum thinks it's "intellectual snobbery" to say that every American should go to college. But tell that to Bob Stewart, of Northeast Philadelphia. After steady union work dried up a few years ago, a diploma became his quest for survival.

"Everything needed a college degree," said Stewart, who admits that he'd been an indifferent student at Archbishop Ryan. He joined the steamfitters' union in the 1990s, even as blue-collar work for high-school grads was vanishing.

Now 34, married with two kids, Stewart - seeking a steady paycheck close to home - finally bit the bullet three years ago and enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia while tending bar at night. He became editor of the student newspaper and is set to enroll in Temple's journalism program in the fall - but he still feels conflicted about employers who demand that sheepskin.

"I definitely think that you shouldn't need college," said Stewart, who believes that more employers could stress on-the-job training - as unions did in their heyday - in lieu of four-year colleges with their exorbitant tuition that's saddled middle-class students with massive debt.

When you run down the list of major issues in a typical U.S. presidential election, college - who goes and who pays? - traditionally didn't make the cut. But 2012 is different.

A major breakdown in the social contract - in which college grads were all but guaranteed jobs, and opportunities still existed for those without higher education - has left many American voters confused, angry and looking for answers.

And as is often the case in America's deeply divided politics, the candidates' answers are trending toward the extreme.

At one extreme is Santorum, who - in his surprising run to the top of the divided GOP primary field - has appealed to working-class, conservative voters with radical views that question both the "college for all" mantra and the agenda of anyone who advocates that.

Claiming that President Obama believes that every person should go to college (despite a lack of evidence that the president ever said that), Santorum accused Obama of "snobbery" at one New Hampshire campaign stop, adding that some teens are "not ready to go to college. They don't want to go to college. They don't need to go to college."

A few days later, the former Pennsylvania senator went further in asserting that liberals use college to "indoctrinate" students.

Obama, on the other end, has recently floated several novel proposals aimed at keeping young people in school longer, with an expanded role for government in making college more affordable and more accessible. In his recent State of the Union address, the president urged states to require youths to stay in school until age 18 - which received a tepid response at best. His new budget includes an $8 billion proposal that seeks to make community colleges a major engine for job training.

"Higher education can't be a luxury," Obama said in his January State of the Union address, adding that "it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford."

The crisis in college access and affordability has destroyed a remarkable consensus in American policy that has largely existed since World War II and the passage of the G.I. Bill in 1944, funding college for returning veterans.

For more than a half-century, there was little debate about the usefulness of a college degree, little questioning of rising tuition and little change in federal policies offering students loans and aid, or in generous state funding of public universities.

That consensus has been shattered in 2012. College costs have doubled since 2000 - rising far faster than any consumer item, even double the rate of increase in health-care expenses. Yet studies show that since the 2008 economic meltdown, six out of 10 college grads can't find a full-time job in their chosen profession, even as they look at repaying student debt that in some cases exceeds $100,000. Meanwhile, manufacturing jobs that once awaited those who didn't attend college are largely gone, and vocational training is poorly matched with careers that do exist.

"We parents are confused, and we're sending our kids confused messages because of these skyrocketing costs, and we don't really know if it improves their chances of getting a job," said Sharifa Zuhur, who lives in central Pennsylvania and whose son is applying to several Philadelphia-area colleges, including Haverford and Temple.

Zuhur's story is increasingly typical: Her family has been paying off college loans most of her adult life - her own for roughly 10 years, then those of her daughter, who, like many four-year degree holders in the sluggish economy, is now preparing to attend graduate school before plunging into the job market.

Like other parents who grew up in the baby-boom generation, Zuhur - who also has lived and worked in the United Kingdom and Egypt, where higher education is heavily subsidized - wonders when college became viewed almost exclusively as just job training, and whether that's healthy.

"College is supposed to be about more than preparing for a job - it's supposed to be educational rather than vocational, where you find your passion in life," she said.

But that notion does seem increasingly quaint at a time when the unemployment rate for college graduates under age 24 is over 9 percent.

Louis Menand, a Harvard University English professor who recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker on the value of college, said in an email interview that the goal of a president like Obama in trying to boost college enrollment is in large part to create more scientists and mathematicians to compete with growing economies such as China.

"A handful of gifted people may not need college in order to be successful contributors to the economy, but 99 percent of us do," Menand said. Addressing Santorum's critique, he added: "The idea that college is dispensable for many Americans is a losing proposition: Some candidates might call it 'managing decay.' "

But Paul Harrington, the director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy, at Drexel University, said that the economic crisis of the past four years has for now created a glut of college graduates - especially among those earning associate degrees at community college.

He noted that the rate of employment among 16-to-19-year-olds has plunged to a record low of 25 percent while community-college enrollment has skyrocketed, even though many of these new students are not well-prepared.

"When you start enrolling more and more students, you're take less and less capable kids," said Harrington, who favors more coordination with local employers so that classes at the community-college level can be coordinated better with specific needs in the local job market.

The new community-college initiative proposed by Obama has a similar goal.

"Model partnerships between businesses like Siemens and community colleges in places like Charlotte, Orlando and Louisville are up and running," he said last month. "Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers - places that teach people skills that local businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing."

For Northeast Philly's Stewart, Community College of Philadelphia proved a relatively cost-effective way - about $400 for each individual class, he said - to collect course credits and get the attention of Temple's admissions office.

"Community college was great - my idea was to get some credits and show that I was a different person than I was in high school," he said.

But others have found college as a career path to be frustrating or back-breakingly expensive, or both. There's been increasing focus since the recession, for example, on the rapid growth of for-profit colleges that - in several high-profile instances - are accused of boiler-room-style recruiting tactics and high default rates in student loans. In some states, including Pennsylvania, the weak economy has meant budget cuts for public universities, which have sparked tuition hikes.

One sign of the political explosiveness of the issue is the role that soaring student debt played in inspiring the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Sean Kitchen, a Philadelphia native who now lives in Horsham and is finishing at Kutztown State University, became a student-protest leader last spring when Gov. Corbett initially proposed cuts in state aid as high as 50 percent for some universities. This fall, he was one of the initial organizers of the Occupy Philly protests at Dilworth Plaza.

"We've been told by our parents since first grade that the only way to make a living is to go to college - and now they tell us that we have to go to grad school," said Kitchen, who said that he was infuriated at Pennsylvania leaders for encouraging tuition hikes but balking at a severance tax on natural-gas drilling.

That fury is only likely to spread over the course of 2012 - especially here in Pennsylvania, where Corbett has targeted colleges for another round of cuts in aid. What remains to be seen is whether public anger will lead to any solutions from perpetually gridlocked Washington - or merely an increase in the rhetoric of resentment and anti-elitism.

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