In Somerset Maugham’s parable “The Verger,” a man fired from his low-paying church job because he is illiterate opens a chain of tobacco shops and becomes quite wealthy. At the end (spoiler alert!), he is asked by his banker to sign some papers. Learning that he can neither read nor write, the astonished banker asks him to imagine where he’d be if he had learned those basic skills. The man responds with some satisfaction, “I’d be verger of St. Peter’s, Neville Square.”
I was reminded of this wonderful story this morning as I read a not-so-wonderful op-ed in the New York Times by Obama booster and actor Tom Hanks, who owes his success, he claims, to his two years of community college. The point comes in the penultimate paragraph:
President Obama hopes to make two years of free community college accessible for up to nine million Americans. I’m guessing the new Congress will squawk at the $60 billion price tag, but I hope the idea sticks, because more veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan this time, as well as another generation of mothers, single parents and workers who have been out of the job market, need lower obstacles between now and the next chapter of their lives. High school graduates without the finances for a higher education can postpone taking on big loans and maybe luck into the class that will redefine their life’s work. Many lives will be changed.
Give Hanks credit. He openly acknowledges that this latest Obama scheme to expand the entitlement state is expensive. But he also dangles an invisible carrot: To wit, although he doesn’t come and say it, his net worth is $350 million. Get it? Shorter Tom Hanks: U 2 cn ern bg $$ by gng to cmty cllg.
So what are we missing? Or is it Hanks who is failing to grasp the big picture? In his article, he mentions that he graduated from high school in 1974. One year earlier, an article in Time from 2009 reports, a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college was something of a rarity, with just 47% of high school graduates going on to college. “By October 2008, that number had risen to nearly 70%. For many Americans today, a trip through college is considered as much of a birthright as a driver’s license.”
It gets worse:
Marty Nemko, a career and education expert who has taught at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, contends that the overflow in degree holders is the result of many weaker students attending colleges when other options may have served them better. “There is tremendous pressure to push kids through,” he says, adding that as a result, too many students who aren’t skilled become degree holders, promoting a perception among employers that higher education doesn’t work. “That piece of paper no longer means very much, and employers know that,” says Nemko. “Everybody’s got it, so it’s watered down.”
What’s not watered down is the tab. The cost of average tuition rose 6.5% this fall, and a report released on Dec. 1 by the Project on Student Debt showed that the IOU is getting bigger. Two-thirds of all students now leave college with outstanding loans; the average amount of debt rose to $23,200 in 2008. In the last academic year, the total amount loaned to students increased about 18% from the previous year, to $81 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
That article, mind you, was written during Obama’s first year in office. Between then and now, one of the president’s top initiatives has been to make college more affordable and accessible to a larger population, including low-performing students. In so doing, he has devalued a bachelors degree to the point where employers are telling new graduates they are not welcome. If a college degree is no longer worth the paper it’s printed on, try to imagine how much less of a premium employers are going to place on associate degrees from community colleges.
- Obama’s free community college gambit flunks first Republican test
- Obama’s free community college gambit is a plan to subsidize failure