By Ken Johnson
Community college helps to bridge the chasm between the American dream and the American reality.
The United States, more than most other countries, prescribes a narrative over the lives of its citizens: grade school, university, career, retirement, and then an uncomfortable death at an unfamiliar hospital, doped up on morphine.
In most of the country, high-school graduates are expected to go to college, and about 70 percent of them do, according to Pew Research Center — that’s up 20 percent from 1970.
Many jobs that didn’t previously require a university degree, such as salesperson or pilot, now require some sort of degree. And that’s a little weird because a bachelor’s degree in history has nothing to do with flying a plane.
Even if someone manages to find a job that doesn’t require some sort of degree, people with degrees look down their noses at people without degrees, especially in cities like Bellingham.
A college degree might as well be the star on the belly of a sneetch.
So a university degree is a status symbol, as well as a prerequisite for landing a job. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing: a liberal arts education can provide context to an otherwise confusing life and help people become more informed citizens. It seems like that, if everyone was educated, there would be fewer problems in the world — fewer Donald Trumps.
Except that college is dangerously expensive.
In 2017, according to Pew Research Center, there was over $1.3 trillion in American student debt, and the average recipient of a bachelor’s degree was over $25,000 in collegiate debt. Roughly half of the people who have bachelor’s degrees do not think that the benefit of the degree outweighs the financial cost. That’s a 50 percent college-regret rate.
And some organizations, such the Huffington Post, have found a connection between student loans and suicide.
Is a liberal arts degree really worth all that?
No. It’s not.
Especially when the reason why anyone would get a liberal arts education is considered. I mean, think about the phrase “liberal arts.” In Latin “liberal” is generally synonymous with “freedom” or “the pursuit of a freeman” — think about the word “liberty.”
I’m not a linguist, but the point I’m trying to make is that a liberal arts education is all about being free. It’s about being able to think for yourself and engage with the world on your own terms.
But there is absolutely nothing liberating about being crushed and churned around in a Sisyphean cycle of debt.
So on one hand, a liberal arts education is a nice thing to have, but on the other hand, getting one ruins lives.
That brings me to community college: the happy medium between an irreparable credit score and being able to name the impacts of climate change.
Community college has two main benefits: it’s cheaper, and everybody is accepted.
There is a special kind of dumb hypocrisy in wanting everyone to go to college, but then turning away a lot of potential students, because, however high an acceptance rate is, some people are still being denied.
Community college is pragmatic where most American universities are elitist. The realization that community colleges have made is that most Americans are not 18 years old and wealthy.
Some people need to work while they’re in school. Some people grow old, not Neil Patrick Harris, but some people.
Community college has flaws and in no way fixes everything. It’s kind of like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound… it helps, a little.
It keeps the good part of going to university — the education — and mitigates the bad parts — the debt and self-loathing.
Community college should expand, and it should become free.
I’m no financial analyst, but maybe we should spend money on educating people before we spend money on shiny Star Wars-style military jets.
Hell, with 1.3 trillion in debt, a crafty government could really get cracking on some state-sponsored terrorism. And if it’s lucky, even topple a democratically elected socialist.
Or educate its citizens.