It’s Time For an Intelligent and Equitable Plan to Fund Post-Secondary Education

Photo by Christina Morillo on

I’m writing this on the day the President announced a plan to forgive $10,000 in Federal student debt for anyone earning less than $125,000 a year. My point in this article is not to debate this politically volatile proposal but rather to observe that it is symptomatic of our dysfunctional system of post-secondary education. This concerns all of us, no matter our party.

The United States has invested in public education in one form or another since before we were a country. The first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1635. Building on that precedent, Horace Mann, secretary of education for Massachusetts established publicly funded education throughout Massachusetts. The practice spread throughout the country during the 19th century, but the first real step toward equity in public education was the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which helped fund equal educational opportunity for all students.

There was a day when most jobs required little more than a high school diploma and this investment in public education provided the literacy and math skills as well as hands on skills that prepared graduates for most jobs and the growth of the U.S. from an agrarian to industrial society.

The G.I. Bill after World War Two led to an explosion in post-secondary education, with many veterans, who otherwise may have not had the chance. This, in turn led to a technological explosion in many fields and propelled the U.S. into space, helped create the computer revolution, advances in health care and life expectancy, and a variety of other societal advances.

The point is that investment in education is investment in the public, and not simply the private good. My basic contention is that we need to face the reality that a post-secondary degree or license in one of the various trades is the equivalent of a high school degree a century or even fifty years ago. And if you care about national greatness, this is a vital place to invest that will repay many times over the investment.

A few thoughts that likely will reveal my lack of expertise in public policy but that I think we all need to wrestle with:

  • Post-secondary is not just college. There is a huge need in the skilled trades which are requiring even more skills as we develop smart homes, buildings and vehicles. For many, training in these fields is a far better option than college and crucially needed. No call center in another country will help you solve a plumbing or HVAC problem. The push to get everyone to go to college is misguided. And we need to recognize the intelligence that supposedly “blue collar” jobs involve.
  • College costs do need to be addressed. Many of the increases in cost have come outside the classroom in terms of residence and recreation facilities. Some of these improvements are necessary, particularly in developing sustainable campuses, but few taxpayers want to invest in the costs of college not directly linked to education.
  • There needs to be equity in education investment, providing those with the least in resources the same opportunities for education. The celebrity admissions scandals reveal we are far away from equity.
  • Stringently regulate for-profit schools, who have accounted for significant student debt and typically have much lower graduation rates.
  • Investment in education should be coupled with some form of state residency and/or national service. Since public education depends on a combination of state and national funding, this makes sense. It may come in the form of an agreement to work in the trade or field one has prepared in for a period of years, where one may pay forward that investment in the services they provide and the taxes they pay.

I’ll stop here. If we truly are committed to national greatness and equal opportunity, it is time to figure out how to extend our model of public funding to post-secondary education.

The Humanities, STEM, and Post-Secondary Education

university hall

University Hall, The Ohio State University by Robert C. Trube, 2016 (all rights reserved)

I was in the hospital over the weekend. Not to visit but as a patient. I won’t tire you with the details, but an encounter underscored some discussions with collegiate ministry staff this past week. The conversation was with an orderly, who with courtesy, grace, and care, wheeled me from the ER to a room on the eighth floor–at 5 am in the morning. I learned that while he works at nights to support his family, he is enrolled in a radiology program at our local community college — and loving it as a forty-something.

This man illustrates the promise in American higher education. A man doing good and worthy work devoting spare hours to acquire a base of knowledge and skill to pursue work that has come to interest him and will likely provide a better income for him and his family.

It seems to me that the defenders of the humanities over against science, technology, engineering, and math often do not seem to be speaking to people like my orderly. While defending their discipline’s nuanced and critical readings of literature, art, music, and history, and even with their accounts of race and class, they do not seem to recognize the opportunity STEM fields offer many to improve their economic status while preparing for good, worthy, and needed work that requires more than a high school diploma.

Do the purveyors of the humanities remember that originally their work was in service of the monied elites of the leisured classes–that these courses served as a “gentleman’s finishing school” for young heirs who would become lawyers or inherit the family’s interests, or sometimes for the training of clergy, who needed a broad understanding of the best that humans had thought and written to inform their preaching.

STEM education also offers the opportunity for advance for those whose station in life otherwise does not allow it. And it emphasizes that scientific rigor, mathematical precision, the ability to translate scientific theory into technological innovations that promote human flourishing are equally marks of education along with understanding what the best that has been thought, performed, or written contribute to educating that has as its end learning to live the well-lived life.

There is another issue that actually places the humanities and STEM over and against another form of post-secondary education–training in skilled trades such as carpentry, electricians work, plumbing, and the skills required to maintain and prepare our many machines from computers to cars to the climate control of our buildings. Most of these also involve significant training beyond that of high school but of a different sort than college education. But they have a common end–they prepare people for good work that is both needed and economically beneficial. There is an old saw that says that the society that despises both its philosophers and plumbers is in trouble, because then neither its ideas nor its pipes hold water!

We are tempted to create hierarchies of more or less noble work. Do we consider the work of the electrician who wires a building well as important as that of the electrical engineer designing the latest micro-chip? Do we consider HVAC technicians who configure systems to heat and cool a building efficiently as important as historians who clear away national myths with a more honest rendering based on sources of our national beginnings. Might all these be done Coram Deo, before God, with God-pleasing excellence? For that matter, was not even the orderly’s work in transporting me to a room where I could receive good medical care, offering me a warmed blanket and a friendly voice, noble work. I think so and was struck that all our conversations about educational priorities must keep in mind people like the man who served me so well and wants more for himself and his family. It seems that is a most “human” thing to do.