By Elizabeth Medina
In the back you can hear a tick tick tick as the clock makes its way to 5 o’clock. It’s evident the class is exhausted since the usual buzz and chatter before the lecture seems to be nonexistent. At the front of the room an observant professor scans the space going from one motionless face to the next.
“Do you all want to hear a rant before class starts?” Everyone, intrigued, cracks a curious smile and nods their heads. “Do you all know that colleges don’t view you all as students, but more like customers?” As the students look at each other in confusion, he continues his long-winded spiel, passionately imparting his knowledge and experiences to the COC students interested in what he has to say.
Professors understand more than anyone the internal conflicts of our education system. This professor says his students “have been sold a lie.” He believes that students need to understand the long-term effects of a college education and instead consider the alternatives.
“It’s disheartening to know that it’s become a college industrial complex and that it’s become a big business essentially,” said John Smith, the COC professor who decided to keep his identity hidden.
According to Smith, the first time the thought manifested itself was in August 2017 during opening day. As far as he could tell, it was mainly a meeting for only full-time faculty and administration.
“The way that it sounded like to me, they talked about trying to beef up the numbers,” Smith explained, “It was like they weren’t talking about the students at all or how to help them. It was all about the numbers and how much we needed to bring in.”
Smith described that he felt utter disbelief when he turned to his colleague and asked how he could stand for any of it? “You get used to it,” was all his colleague had to say. It was something Smith knew, deep down, that he would never be able to do. It was a distressing turning point in his career as a professor, and one he never saw coming.
Before Smith had discovered this reality, he dreamt of the day he hoped to inspire and help others reach their true potential. He knew, to do that, it would have to be in the place it all started for him, in the very place that he learned he wanted to teach for the rest of his life, COC.
In 2016, his dream of working at COC became a reality. A year later, however, Smith decided he could no longer keep his full-time position. On May 31, 2018, it would mark his final day as a beloved COC professor.
“I feel guilty that my students have been sold a lie because we have now reached a point that it costs so much to go to college,” Smith said. “When enrollment is down, that should be something that we’re happy about, yet we seem here to view that as a bad thing, we want to keep people trapped in a cycle of debt from college.”
For decades, the cost of a college education has steadily risen. Up until around the 1970s, students didn’t even have to pay tuition at public colleges in the US. When Ronald Reagan assumed office as Governor of California in 1966, he cut state funding for higher education during his eight years in office. He set the stage for a tuition-based system that turned higher education in California into a for-profit enterprise. As soon as colleges realized that students were willing to pursue a degree, they aggressively raised tuition.
Recently, in 2017, the California State University Board of Trustees and University of California Regents voted to raise tuition. UCs received a 2.5 percent increase in tuition, hiking it up to more than $11,500 for undergrads for the 2017-2018 academic year. Tuition at CSUs saw an increase of about $270 per year.
As tuition and fees continued to rise, students had no choice but to find financial help to alleviate the rising costs. The average federal Pell Grant that students were awarded during the 1970s and up, was able to cover about 116 percent of tuition for public colleges, yet by 2012 it only covered 42 percent. It was during this time that the loan industry truly expanded. In 1999, outstanding student loan debt in the US was a mere $90 billion, yet now we see that Americans owe almost $1.5 trillion in US student loan debt, with no indication of stopping. With easy access to loans, colleges don’t have the motivation to lower costs.
The average debt per student borrower in 2018 was almost $28,000. So, why are more students diving into a sea of student debt each year at such a young age? Well, Smith believes that high tuition and loans “became normalized” by parents, counselors, and high school teachers who have over-hyped the idea that college is needed for a successful life. “We just made it so normal for all of you, that taking out a loan for $25,000 is like, ‘Oh this is what you do’,” he said. He explained that, as 18 or 19-year-olds, the decision to take on a huge financial burden, like student loans, is outright ridiculous. Some students drop out before they even have the chance to get a degree and, instead, they are forced to put off buying a house or a car to pay off student loans.
“That is a huge burden to take on, to pay for something that only a fraction of you will use, which is your college degree,” Smith said, “ and it’s such a huge chunk of your lives where the interest just compounds and you just can’t keep up.”
About 43 percent of college graduates, ages 22 to 65, had a job that did not require a college degree, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last updated April 27, 2018. That is, close to half of those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree, or higher, landed jobs that probably had nothing to do with their majors, making their degrees practically useless.
A PhD Sociology student, and COC alumnus, who also refused to reveal his identity, expressed his sentiment on the subject. “I was trained by the sociology department at Berkeley to do nothing. I went there and basically got a degree in ‘Woke 101’. I am the most ‘woke’ person that you’ll ever meet now that I went there but being ‘woke’ is not a skill that works very well in the working world,” he said. “I don’t know why parents or high school guidance counselors, or even community guidance counselors like the ones they had at COC, thought that it was a good idea to try to convince me to go to college.”
In a 2017 study conducted by Gallup and the Strada Education Network, only 34 percent of students said they were confident that college would provide them with the skills necessary for success in the job market. Thirty-six percent said they would change their majors if they had the opportunity, 28 percent said they would have preferred to switch institutions, and 12 percent said they would have preferred a different degree program all together. The study also revealed that a little over 50 percent of students regretted at least one decision made for their college education.
Many students who have regretted their choices have expressed concern that they simply did not have the necessary information while applying for colleges. A major reason for this is because parents, friends, teachers, and counselors push well-known institutions on high school graduates without thoroughly going over other options. Another Gallup and Strada 2017 report revealed that 55 percent of adults received advice from informal social networks, like friends or family.
“I know that if I had to pay for my college experience I would be incredibly bitter because I left college trained to do nothing,” said the COC alumnus. “The decision was also supported by the really terrible advice I got from counselors and from professors who said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about the money just study what you want to study.’”
Smith explained, that as a professor, he has witnessed the problems with our higher education system first hand. He believes that forcing students into a system that doesn’t work for everyone is completely unsustainable.
“Not everybody should go to college. To try to treat the populous the same way and recruit them the same way with the notions of, ‘You need us, so we will help you’ is just a flawed premise from the start where we presume everybody needs us, and a lot of them not only don’t need us, but they don’t want us,” said Smith.
A Professor of Communication Studies at CSUN, Peter Marston, agreed that some students should not pursue college.
“College does not work for most students, but when it does work it turns students into lifelong learners and problem solvers,” said Marston. “The problem isn’t economic, it isn’t institutional, it’s a spiritual problem where people don’t value education, they don’t want it, and when people don’t want to get educated, there’s nothing you can do to make it happen. And all these students who don’t want an education, they lower the quality of the discussion for everyone at the university.”
Marston believes that the “college system can work if students take advantage of it” but, much like Smith, he believes that many of the students in college are only going because they think they must.
So, is college necessary? Is it a surefire way to be successful? Well, Smith was adamant about reminding students that there are options outside of higher education.
Seventy percent of high school graduates go straight to college and by the time they receive their bachelor’s, or not, most of them will be working at places like Starbucks. Many have speculated that by the time they graduate, college students don’t necessarily have all the qualifications or the experience for an entry-level job. Students also spend less time studying, making the gap even larger.
Smith has said that trade and blue-collar jobs are what people should be looking into. Even those who have gone the college route can still investigate the alternatives. CareerCast is a great online career site to start looking into well-paying jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. Examples on the site include an executive assistant, electrician, or plumber which all earn median earnings upwards of $50,000. Other skilled trades in high demand include welders, masons, carpenters, and machine operators.
The COC alumnus could not stress enough how trades should never be looked down upon or stigmatized because of the actual hard labor that goes into them. He strongly agrees that the students who don’t want to be in college shouldn’t, and if that means taking a year or two off to mature and grow, or just never going to college in general, it’s up to that person to do what they think is best for their future and not what an institution thinks.
Smith also made it clear that the options are there, despite advisors, teachers, parents, or counselors pushing the college route on students, as an educator, he wants to make it known that college isn’t the only way.
“It’s not coming from an evil place, or a deceptive place. You see that light bulb go off and you see people improving, I live for those moments. Being a part of a team has opened me up to this whole new side of myself that I didn’t know existed and it changed me as a person fundamentally and I want to do that for other people. That’s why I do this, that’s why I’ll keep doing this because I still believe in what I teach despite the fact that students are drowning in debt.”