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Why I Don’t Think Free College For All Our Kids Is The Best Idea

The following was syndicated from Medium for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at [email protected].

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. Not the case with Ian, though. He abruptly stopped eating, looked straight at his brother, 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 presuming the wisdom of his 52-year-old father. But then I panicked. That wasn’t my wisdom. I had no idea where that came from. I still don’t. As parents, my wife 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 decide college will better prepare them to use those talents then college is a great idea. But if not, I’m sorry Ian. I don’t think saying no thank you to college 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.

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I responded with 3 things:

  • A lot of people work at jobs doing things they love to do but don’t make big money and they are very content. They don’t feel like they are living horrible lives.
  • I told him a lot of people make big money at jobs they got without a college degree.
  • Finally, and maybe this is the most important one, I told him there are a lot of people out there who went to college and make big money. Many of them aren’t sure of anything in their lives except that they’re living horrible lives.

40 percent of college students who begin the pursuit of a bachelors degree don’t have one 6 years after they start it.

Ian’s comment was most scary because it indicates my 7-year-old has adopted 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.

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.

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, 40 percent of college students who begin the pursuit of a bachelors degree don’t have one 6 years after they start it. I 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 about what they were good at. They had no end vision for college other than securing a degree.

He said the only way you can get a good job is if you go to college.

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 13 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.

I guess 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 both of them will 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.

Robert Keith Cartwright is a writer living a life of gratitude.