College affordability is getting to be a hot button political issue. President Obama addressed this in the state of the union speech 1/12/16. Addressing this issue is a good thing, but it needs to be examined more closely
Right now, too many people are going to college, more than the economy can support.
Not enough people are going into skilled trades. Entry procedures into lucrative trades such as plumbing and electrical are corrupt. Entry is dependent on knowing someone who will take one on as a journeyman or apprentice. The old boy network is resulting in incompetent practitioners who break things in my house. Entry into these professions needs to be more transparent like entry into law or medicine.
We need to stop regarding traditional college as the solution to employment problems. We need to educate people in how to run and start a business. We shouldn’t necessarily be encouraging so many people to go to college.
We have to reverse the process that has eliminated vocational courses from high schools, focusing them exclusively on college prep. We are raising a generation of people who are helpless to do ordinary things.
A couple of anecdotes:
This year, I attended a symposium at the University of Wisconsin in memory of my father, Heinz Barschall, and celebrating his colleague, Willy Haeberli. This occasion was timed to approximately coincide with my late father's 100th birthday and Willy’s 90th.
My father was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. For most of his career, he focused on nuclear physics. At this symposium, I learned that in seeking graduate students to study in his experimental physics lab, he preferred students who had been raised on farms, because these students knew how to build things, especially experimental equipment.
I remember my father saying that American students were always better than foreign students.
My kids went to a high school that had eliminated shop classes. I would say that they were effectively educated to be helpless.
I was an exchange student in France back in the 1970’s.
The French educational system has always prided itself on being free; however, my impression was that the system was more focused on weeding students out than on educating them. There were exams at the ends of middle and high school -- intended to force most students to flunk. At the university, amongst students who had already been through the first two exams, only 50% got through the first degree, which was called "license." The whole system was designed with the idea that it was free, but study beyond the teen years was generally only available to those who could pass these exams.
I feel that this process damaged the self-esteem of most French people and has resulted in that country having generally more unemployment and less entrepreneurship than here. The "free" education system in France, at least back then, had a horrific human cost, in terms of pressure on and damage to children. I saw rather alarming and obvious mental illness amongst members of my high school class there that I never saw in my American high school.
I would submit that that human cost ultimately damages their economy as well.
Our system has been based on the hope of making everyone successful with easy, empowering courses. This is better for students. This results in increased creativity, confidence, and problem solving ability. We should not be rushing to imitate foreign educational systems. The pressure I've seen on students in the NYC metro area, where my kids grew up, is very damaging, especially to boys, who develop more slowly than girls and can't cope with that pressure.
Comparisons between our high schools and foreign high schools are also very misleading, because in foreign countries a large percentage of students, perhaps a even a majority, aren’t necessarily finishing high school and are therefore not part of these tests.
Saying we are going to make college free is not necessarily a good solution. It will encourage even more students to go to college, when too many people are already going to college. It also will put many students into higher pressure academic environments that are not necessarily good for them.