Tuesday Talks: Tuition-Free College and Education in General

JOHN BUTERBAUGH:
The main argument Governor Cuomo makes for tuition-free college is that it prepares the workforce of the state for the future. It is quite clear that automation and outsourcing has put pressure on American workers to seek employment outside of manufacturing. More and more jobs will require college degrees. However, what this bill doesn’t do is combat rising student loan interest rates that can keep students in debt for decades. Sure, it helps prevent debt. Yet for many New Yorkers, this bill comes far too late. College graduates who are in debt now will still be unable to renegotiate their student loan interest rates. College students will continue to have to pay for room and board which is becoming more expensive.

This bill also doesn’t seem to acknowledge a very large group of people – blue-collar workers. The state government and society often claim that college is the way to go. It often seems it is the only way to go. However, for many workers, college is irrelevant and a waste of time. It doesn’t achieve their goals. This comes at a time when many trades cannot be outsourced. You can’t, for example, send a bridge to China for a worker there to weld it. It’s impractical. Welding is an insanely high-demand job. We place a lot of emphasis on education, but where is the leadership for training people for these jobs?

Governor Cuomo realizes that his plan doesn’t help a lot of people. He even calls his plan a “fight for the middle class.” It doesn’t provide free tuition to wealthier families who should be able to foot the bill themselves. But, what about the working poor? What about concerns about dwindling social mobility in our post-industrial economy? What about the fact that there continue to be people who work long hours every week and still cannot make ends meet? My qualms over this bill are not related to the residency requirement after receiving the tuition scholarship. This requirement is pragmatic in that it aims to make a return on its investment through taxation of graduates’ income. Plus, 80% of graduates in New York state stay anyway. My real issue with this bill is that it does not address key concerns facing working-class New Yorkers. They will also be paying the taxes that support the ability of young middle-class Americans to remain in the middle class.

My hope is that this bill, despite its imperfections, shines a lot on our true intentions when it comes to bettering our society. My hope is that low-income high school students will have more of a reason to graduate high school so that they can go to community college or a four-year program. Many students give up because high school diplomas aren’t good enough for most jobs, and they couldn’t afford college anyway. However, we can’t always predict future decisions. Humans are irrational beings after all. Despite all this, I support this bill because it is leadership in the right direction. It understands that education is not an entitlement program but rather an empowerment program. We invest in students so that they have the skills and power to improve our society. I pray that this actually happens, and if the program fails to deliver improved outcomes, we must be mature enough and courageous enough to demand some changes.

PATRICK WOOD:  Well said, John. The bill isn’t perfect, and leaves a lot of issues unaddressed, but before delving into that, I think it’s important to celebrate this monumental step forward. After many of our peer nations offered free 4-year university for citizens (and in the case of Germany, even non-citizens), the USA finally has a state that has gotten its priorities straight and offered the same. Hopefully this gives credence to a movement and the momentum of the free college movement spreads. I absolutely agree that we are continuing to overlook the great value of vocational schools.

Unfortunately, most bachelors degrees are worth less than they used to be in terms of relative earning potential and the proportion of graduates who find work in their fields quickly. Those who know they don’t want to pursue a STEM field or a graduate program may actually be in a better position having taken a couple years to learn a trade than the person who spent four years getting a bachelor’s degree. There will always be a need for mechanics, beauticians, plumbers, electricians, and other specialized services – it’s a wrongheaded approach to push high school graduates away from these careers.

JOHN: I think one possibility is that it might open up unintended consequences. If a lot of students go for the scholarship, it might make the value of their degree lower than before. This is because job markets are competitive in that you must be “more qualified” than another person. Social sciences have a lot of students, but you need even more education to stand out because an undergraduate degree is simply not enough in most cases. For a political science major, you might need to get a law degree. Most psychology students will need postgraduate education, maybe for research, therapy, or a school psychologist.

We know automation is happening and we know outsourcing is happening. I definitely believe that we should promote professions or vocations that are the least prone to those happening. We need to prepare students for a world that has less routine skills and more critical thinking and creativity. Instead, in many cases, we are teaching students to simply accept information and not challenge it. This is setting them up for failure. If not failure, we set them up for a career where they only have to accept orders. In many cases, this is law enforcement and the military.

PATRICK: I don’t see NY state providing free higher education as a bad thing, even though it certainly puts a vocational schools and a private colleges in a worse position. Teaching students to accept information and not challenge it is more a problem related to current campus political atmosphere and less inherent in the concept of university.
If these are the only jobs, the government will have a lot more motivation to conduct military operations where we don’t need to be.
JOHN: What I’m talking about isn’t necessarily college’s fault. I’m discussing education before that. In many cases, schools are run like businesses where we value productivity far more than creativity. Why? The students aren’t going into fields like manufacturing where they do something repetitive. “Do your work” is the mantra far more than “Oh, that’s unusual and interesting. Tell me more about that.”
PATRICK: I agree. I think students feel very constrained in how far they can push boundaries in expressing themselves. Both just in expressing opinions and in their formal work.
JOHN: I’m not encouraging disrupting class. The students have to remain on topic. What I am saying, however, is students should have an opportunity to look at an issue in new ways.
PATRICK: I think my issue here is that students are typically afraid to go against the grain. They think they’ll it’ll be a stain on their record and rightly or wrongly often believe that more creative and unique thinking isn’t “what the professor is looking for.”
A friend of mine at law school told me on the day of the final “just quote the damn professor in your essay and you’ll get an A.” Whether that’s the truth of not, it’s the prevailing belief.
JOHN: I think a lot of it comes down to how we assess student learning. It’s far easier and more objective to grade a student using a Scantron. It’s far more difficult to grade a student on creativity or critical thinking through essays or projects. I also don’t believe everything needs to require novelty in thought. Sometimes common sense suffices. I think the common sense perspective should remain a part of the discussion to keep people grounded. I also believe people should seek out new information and new ideas.
I think in scientific research, for example, it helps to take risks. You are required to find something new. If you just memorize a textbook, you’re not really contributing much to the field.
PATRICK: I think introductory level classes should be structured to develop basic understanding of underlying principles and common sense, trying to stick to objectivity
JOHN: But absolutely you need a scientific foundation
PATRICK: And upper-level classes are for seeking something new and really branching out.
JOHN: You have to be able to connect new information to old information.
PATRICK: Exactly!
JOHN: I think there are simply excellent, excellent universities with a lot of talented faculty members and students. I think America has some of the best-performing students in the world. But we also have a lot of low-performing students who are impoverished and might act out because they don’t feel school can do anything for them.
It’s very difficult, and I work with these students personally, to teach them positive behavior. In many cases, teachers will outline expectations and then the students go home to a difficult home life that unteaches them everything school did about behavior.
It feels like a battle honestly. What can we do?

PATRICK: I’m not a great person to ask, but I think part of the value of school is keeping kids safe while they are attending.

JOHN: What do you mean by safe?
PATRICK: Mostly physical safety but perhaps also refuge from a difficult home life
Even if, as you say, a lot of what is taught in school is unlearned.
JOHN: A lot of students take pride in demonstrating challenging behavior because they see it as power. And a lot of students don’t want to come off as vulnerable, they act tough. Or they are so used to conflict and drama that peace and quiet is boring; so, they engage in drama to keep themselves entertained. It’s a big deal when kids get into a fight because it’s exciting.
PATRICK: Fair point but I think the fights and conflicts are perhaps better had within the confines of the school building instead of the home or the street. There are more adult figures who care about the safety of the students there.
JOHN: I haven’t seen as many physical fights, but students often battle teachers to refuse work or deny that they were talking when the teacher was trying to do a lesson. I will say the students are much better behaved 1 on 1 because they aren’t trying to perform. What I mean is a lot of students act bad because it makes them cool to their friends. So, they’ll talk back to the teacher or even curse at them. Then there’s the times the teacher talks to the student, and the student doesn’t even respond to the teacher and continues talking to their friends.
PATRICK: Right. Better to look “hard” than like a suck up to the teacher.
JOHN: I don’t need students to suck up to me or another teacher. I just want the students to focus on learning.
PATRICK: That can be perceived as sucking up or worse. You certainly face a real challenge.
JOHN: A lot of the students come to school and want to learn and get good grades, but then you have a handful of kids who don’t care about that. They end up disrupting and distracting other students. Just a handful of students in a class can make a big difference in the classroom environment.
PATRICK: It will be interesting to see how New York’s private colleges respond to SUNY tuition becoming free. They will most likely have to up their scholarship offers considerably to keep enrollment numbers up, we’ll see how they respond to this narrowing of their income stream.
JOHN: They definitely don’t like the bill because it will hurt their enrollment, but they might end up having to reduce their tuitions to compete.
PATRICK: We’ll soon found out just how heavy that blow is, and what they plan to do to compensate.
JOHN: They might want to boost their postgraduate programs because the Excelsior Scholarship doesn’t apply to postgraduate studies. I think a shift is very likely.
PATRICK: Their hand will be forced.
JOHN: Postgraduate tuition is higher than undergraduate tuition anyway. Prospective jobs requiring postgraduate coursework are generally higher-paying and more competitive.
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