Are College Degrees the New Home Deeds?

I agree with most of what James Mazol is saying here:

Any recent graduate of upper-middle class origins can attest to the existence and power of [the stigma against not going to college]. For us, four-year college was never an option but mandatory; frankly, many of our parents spent unholy sums to avoid the shame of admitting, “Er . . . actually, Jimmy’s not going to school” at dinner parties. Heaven help us if this ridiculous obsession begins to work its way down the socio-economic ladder.

Let us hope President Obama enacts policies that will produce people with real skills to compete in the marketplace – by focusing on improving community colleges and vocational institutions – rather than pushing more people into glorified diploma factories.

On the one hand, yes. We need to get away from the idea that a four-year degree is inherently useful and will guarantee future success (something the subject of Mazol’s post, a recent graduate who sued her school because she remains unemployed, found out the hard way). Obama should, as Mazol suggests, focus on more realistic policies.

But there’s also some danger here: a ghettoization effect where, once we accept the fact that not everyone needs a four-year degree (which is surely true), we shunt the less privileged—not because they’re less privileged, mind you, but because they’re less “prepared”—off to institutions we then proceed to forget ever existed.

Oh, and it hadn’t struck me before I read this post (and I doubt I’m the first to make this comparison), but isn’t there an analogy to be drawn between Obama’s desire to rack up college graduation rates and George W. Bush’s desire to increase home ownership levels?

In both cases, we’re talking about a metric that should be useful. All things being equal, having a home is better than not having a home, and having a college degree is better than not having a college degree. But when you spend ungodly sums of borrowed money on said home/degree, only to find out that it is worth far less than the people who were cheerleading you toward its acquisition would have had you believe, that piece of paper, whether a deed or a diploma, suddenly gets a lot less inspirational.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.