Food For Thought

College For Everyone?

by Dr. John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John Bonfadini

Youíre picking up the morning newspaper when the local trash company stops to collect your garbage. Two workers jump off the truck and hustle to your cans. Theyíre carrying on a conversation.

One worker asks the other, ďWhere did you get your degree in environmental management?Ē His partner replies, ďFrom Virginia Tech.Ē He responds,Ē I think my environmental management degree from The University of Virginia has more prestige in the field, and Iím hoping to get an advanced degree in Ďliving greení from Harvard.Ē

Hearing the conversation, the truck driver chimes in, ďMy degree from Stanford is considered the best trash-removal degree in the world ... I specialized in packaging and compounding trash.Ē

This conversation might sound a bit far-fetched, but if Bill and Melinda Gates meet their objective of having 80 percent of all students prepared for college, most people will attend college. The Gateses were interviewed on CBS, where they discussed how they were going to give away $60 billion. Melinda Gates is to be commended for her forward and compassionate thinking on providing medical care to the poor. There will be a place in heaven for them for saving the lives of millions of poor children throughout the world. Itís nice to see that they realize the most satisfying rewards are more than financial.

In addition to their objective of providing medical assistance to poor countries, the Gates Foundation is providing billions of dollars to improve education in the United States. Bill Gates, like many others, believes that education is the key to our countryís economic success. During the interview, Melinda noted that now only 30 percent of our students are prepared for college. Sheíd like to see 80 percent of all students prepared for college.

College is not the answer to all problems. Certainly a more educated populace is better prepared to meet the challenges of the future. I just donít think that college the way itís now structured is the vehicle for providing the majority of advanced education. If we had 80 percent of all students graduating from college what would they do? Moms and dads would expect more than garbage-collection careers after lifetimes of saving to send their children to college. Are companies going to pay trash collectors more money because they have college degrees? The college experience has intrinsic value, but ultimately the goal for advanced education is to get a better job. Some of my university colleagues would disagree, but as Iíve previously noted, there is no dignity in being unemployed, even if you have a Ph.D.

The Internet may help solve one problem facing higher education by eliminating the need for buildings to house students. Using the Internet eliminates some of the college-experience value, but itís a viable way to educate the masses beyond high school. Student-loan debt is now $880 billion. The University of Phoenix has more than 86 percent of its students on student loans. Maybe the Gateses should consider giving funds to current students who were sold a ďbill of goodsĒ on the economic value of college and canít pay back their government loans. Repaying college loans is a major problem for both the student and government. What happens when we double that debt? Education for profit also creates many additional problems, such as overselling students on the return on an investment in a college education.

Gone are the old days, when we idealized college as students sitting beneath a tree watching apples fall to get a sense of what Newton felt as he developed his theories on gravity. We need more apple pickers than Newtons, and chances are the apples they work with may be iPads. I think our goal should be to educate everyone to their maximum potential. I donít oppose more education, but I do disagree that the existing university structure is the vehicle to provide additional education for all beyond secondary school. If society is to have a more highly educated populace, we must be more open to other ways of providing that education.

High school education is too focused on preparing students for college. The college-prep goal is the tail that wags the dog. It determines high-school courses, guidance-department time allocation, sports, testing, school perception, and many other things.

If we are going to prepare an additional 50 percent of students for college, we must improve that preparation and what happens when those student get to college. Over 54 percent of all students entering college a decade ago didnít finish after six years of education. Whatís going to happen when the college population is doubled? I estimate the dropout rate will increase from 54 percent to 75 percent. The current college-preparation scenario is not the answer. More and better education is, but it canít follow the same formula.

Bill Gates was one of those college dropouts. He left Harvard in his junior year to embark on a career that would eventually make him the wealthiest person in the world. I guess you donít have to graduate to become wealthy and well respected. John Wall of the NBA Wizards went to Kentucky for one year and heís a millionaire. I would speculate that a large percentage of those who drop out of college do quite well in the real world, without earning a degree.

My university colleagues in most liberal arts departments are probably pulling their hair out reading what Iím writing, but no one said I had to be intelligent to write this column. Iím showing you a copy of my high school report card (see bottom) to illustrate my point. Iím also using it to show that, if you have the wrong measurement tool, I donít care who measures or how long you measure, the answer will always be wrong.

High schools and colleges just donít accurately measure enough or the right things to be able to predict future success. Using college as the sole barometer of educational success was an error in the past and will also be a failure in the future. The items that contribute to success in life extend beyond the few courses offered in high school or college. We must expand our view of an educational community to include more than the ivied walls.

The college structure is too frozen in tradition to educate a higher percentage of the population. More avenues for education must be utilized, including the business community and military. We need some way of formally recognizing educational achievement attained in ways that can be assembled into something similar to a college degree. College will always be appropriate for some, but not 80 percent. Education is appropriate for 100 percent.

Finally, check the salaries of trash collectors. They vary greatly, but some collectors in major cities make six figures. Getting rid of the trash is very important. If not, the rats will take over. Time to offer Trash Collecting 101.

Whats Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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