Thoughts on free higher education for all

On March 13, the Senate passed Senate Bill No. 1304, known as “The Free Higher Education for All Act,” in pursuit of the state policy “to make higher education accessible to financially disadvantaged but deserving students.”  The social justice intent behind the proposed law is admirable.  It seeks to widen, if not equalize, the opportunity to attend college, a public good that has become increasingly inaccessible to poor families in view of the rising cost of higher education.

My reservation about the bill concerns the typical equation between higher education and attending a formal program of academic study.  The proposed law defines higher education thus: “Higher Education refers to the stage of formal education, or its equivalent, requiring completion of secondary education and covering programs of study leading to bachelor and advanced degrees.”  The emphasis is on spending more time at school, and attaining the prized college diploma.

Forty years ago, the British sociologist Ronald Dore wrote the explosive book “The Diploma Disease” (1976).  In it, he diagnoses what he calls “the ritualising disease of qualificationism,” which assigns to schools and universities the twin functions of providing education, on the one hand, and, on the other, sifting every generation into those who will get the jobs and those who won’t.  The two functions do not always go together. In late developing societies, notes Dore, the “sifting”—or the social selection—function has tended to overwhelm the educating function of schools.

When people go to university to improve their job prospects rather than to get an education, the whole purpose of higher learning gets distorted.  Courses that are not “marketable” lose their appeal. Students flock to courses that guarantee employment and high salaries. Academic time spent on liberal education is whittled down to a minimum. Learners become grade-conscious, carefully choosing their subjects and professors to boost their chances at graduating with honors rather than to broaden their intellectual horizon.

The result of this flawed practice is the growing ranks of the “educated unemployed,” individuals who, having gone through a tedious 4-year course, often at the cost of losing their taste for learning, can find no work that suits their qualifications and justifies the investment in time and money they have made.  To their utter frustration, they realize that the jobs for which they eventually get hired do not actually require the kind of skills and knowledge they have spent years acquiring.

Dore’s basic thesis is intriguing. “It rests on the assumption that good (as opposed to merely qualified) administrators and doctors and teachers are, if not exactly born rather than made, at least pretty well made by their early teens, and that in the process of perfecting them after that, formal schooling may be as much a hindrance as a help.”  This statement could be misunderstood as saying that talent is innate and that therefore the equalization of opportunities for further education won’t make much difference. But that is not what he means.

What Dore is arguing is that people vary in their talents and gifts; therefore, educational arrangements should be based on “an explicit recognition of these differences.” This, of course, is hardly tackled by the mere administration of achievement tests. Sixteen-year-olds may not be prepared to decide with certainty what they want to pursue as they enter adulthood. Aptitude rather than achievement tests, supplemented by compassionate career counseling, would certainly help them to know what they are good at and what triggers their passion and imagination. A good number of high school graduates may opt to take short-term technical-vocational courses that would give them the skills they need to land a job, rather than spend more time in college.

A government program that offers free college tuition to anyone who meets admission requirements for tertiary education could reinforce the flawed notion that one needs a college diploma to become a productive participant in the modern economy.  In a digital world that has made practically every form of knowledge available to anyone with the passion and determination to search for it, we know that a formal certificate is the least reliable indicator of one’s achievement or level of competency.  Employers ought to stop asking for college diplomas or proof of graduation; they should be asking for actual demonstration of skills or capabilities, or, if at all, proof of apprenticeship or work experience. Dore argues that, if there is at all any rationality to the system, it is mainly due to the fact that higher education institutions are usually better at spotting the able than at imparting ability.

Like Dore, however, I do not believe in “de-schooling” society. I continue to think that the aims of universal education are best accomplished by means of a system of state-supported schools.  But, before we throw more scarce public funds into a largely unexamined system of higher education, I think we need to address as a priority the persisting gaps in the provision of quality basic education for the masses.

As for further education, Dore’s work offers two basic elements for an alternative.  First, “start careers earlier,” preferably at the end of high school, transferring much of the responsibility for social selection to work organizations.  Second, “avoid using learning achievement tests” in determining career paths.  The essential idea, says Dore, is to discourage students from simulating innate talent by cramming for a test.