Monday, December 19, 2011

PF Jan 2012 - Who Benefits From College?

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The Obvious Case
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a benefit is something that promotes well-being and is synonymous with the word advantage.  The debater who researches deeply into the benefits of college education will find overwhelming evidence of the advantages enjoyed by those who elect to pursue a college education in spite of the costs.  Intuitively we know, if a student can persist, earn the degree and find the higher paying job, the advantages enjoyed will outweigh the costs.  There is simply no way to dispute this fact.  Of course, following that course of action is fraught with its own perils which could mean in the end, the costs were not worth it.  One could fail to persist, not earn the degree, or not find the job.  While a certain percentage of attrition is expected, meaning a certain number will drop out for various reasons, it is clear that many will end up underemployed.  That is, due to current economic conditions, many will not find work in their field of study, it also means many will accept jobs outside of their field of study simply because they are good jobs, which meet the needs of the graduate.  For them, the cost of the education is not outweighed by the benefit because the advantages of the education are not required.

The Future of the Job Market
A report by Georgetown University looks at the future of the job market from present through 2018 and concludes the requirement for a college educated workforce, will outpace the number of educated workers.  The projections indicate many of the common, labor, manufacturing, food service, and agricultural jobs currently not requiring any education beyond secondary school, will require a minimum of a college degree. The Georgetown study claims the current recession is "accelerating the shift to jobs requiring postsecondary education".  The study makes the following claim: "Demand for workers with college educations will outpace supply to the tune of 300,000 per year. By 2018, the postsecondary system will have produced 3 million fewer college graduates than demanded by the labor market." This disparity in demand and supply for college educated workers may present the key to winning the Pro argument.

The Root of Failure
Something can only be a benefit or advantage to you if you can obtain it and for many, admission to a college is not obtainable for three main reasons.  First, for some, they simply do not meet the academic requirements for admission.  At many schools, the standards a student must meet for acceptance are high.  Many are filtered out because they can not achieve an acceptable SAT or ACT score, some are denied admission because their high-school grade-point average is too low or their level of preparation is below the requirement most colleges feel are necessary if one is to have even a remote opportunity to succeed in college.  Second, and here is a major reason directly applicable to the question of costs, many students may be accepted but do not attend because they can not meet the costs.  The bottom line, college is very expensive and in order to achieve its benefits one must be able to afford to pay the costs up-front, either from personal finances or via loans.  Keep in mind that every loan has its own eligibility requirements, such as income and credit-worthiness and at least some level of promissory support from an eligible parent or guardian.  Thirdly, even if postsecondary education was fully open to any and all takers and even if it was free, there is simply no way our current universities and colleges could accommodate the student populations.  College classrooms only have so many openings, and the dormitories only have so many rooms.

The Unequal Benefit
Given the realities denoted above, it may be possible to frame-up a powerful Pro argument if one can successfully assert the benefits of a college education can only be cost effective when they are available to everyone equally.  This in fact, allows the Pro to agree with with Con only insofar as the college education is equally attainable by all the members of the society.  Since the net benefit is zero to a student who wishes to go to college but can not be admitted, even a $50 application fee represents a cost that can never be recovered.  In fact, the cost of postage to mail the application is enough to outweigh the benefits.  Trust me when I tell you, the Pro debater will find a wealth of evidence supporting the fact higher-education is not equally available to students of unequal socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.

A meritocracy is an ideological construct where the "most common definition of meritocracy conceptualizes merit in terms of tested competency and ability" (see: The simple fact is, each college can only accommodate a fixed number of students and so a selection process is applied based on the perceived merits of the applicants and thus one should recognize, the selection criteria is governed by a meritocracy. However, as we are reminded by Dr. Matt Bloom Of Notre Dame University, "Another potential problem of meritocracies is called the “41st chair problem.” It refers to the French Academy of Sciences during the Renaissance period that elected as members and immortals the 40 people who purportedly were the most distinguished members of French society. The 41st chair refers to those people who were never elected into the Academy, people like Descartes, Rousseau, Pascal, Molière, Flaubert, and Proust. History suggests that the contributions and greatness of the 40 chair holders are not significantly different from the occupants of the 41st chair, yet at the time of the Academy, election was viewed as the result of a meritocracy."  Whether the 41st chair is truth or myth can be argued, but it nicely serves to illustrate the concept that a selection process based on relative merits is discriminatory on one or more levels or at minimum may reject individuals who otherwise could attain the benefits of education to the betterment of society.

There is a reality about the college admission process which is not often spoken about openly.  Neal Gabler of the Boston Globe, reports, "The admissions system of the so-called “best’’ schools is rigged against you. If you are a middle-class youth or minority from poor circumstances, you have little chance of getting in to one of those schools. Indeed, the system exists not to provide social mobility but to prevent it and to perpetuate the prevailing social order."  Pulitzer Prize winning author, Daniel Golden, in a series of articles written for the Wall Street Journal and in his book, "The Price of Admission", describes how college admissions are often driven by a kind of elitist, affirmative action which reduces the number of places available to outstanding students of normal means.  A study of meritocracy in college admissions is very enlightening and will reveal quite clearly the kinds of criteria admissions offices must apply to screen potential candidates.

Who Benefits?
If the debater can see the implications of how meritocracy, discriminates between thousands of college applicants each year, then it begs the question, who benefits from the college education?  Clearly, and as the Con will no doubt overwhelmingly show, nearly everyone who attains the education benefits.  But what we must see, is as employers and the demands of the market-place increasingly require some level of college education, then those who for reasons beyond their control are denied the education, are increasingly harmed and the gap between those who benefit and those who do not grows.  Therefore it can be argued that any system which demands certain levels of achievement and then denies certain groups the ability to achieve those standards, harms society. This is a cost that far outweighs the benefit.

There are many things which benefit those who can attain their advantages.  On the basis of an economic evaluation one may conclude the benefits merit the costs.  One only need to look at slavery in 18th century America as a perfect example.  Nevertheless, when one realizes there are other costs besides economic which are even more weighty in our evaluation of justice and the factors which harm society, no amount of money will ever compensate for the negative impacts.  As the demand for college education increases, the polarization of our society will increase and that may be a cost which far outweighs the benefits.

Following are a few of the many articles and sources I consulted when researching this essay:

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