The Broken Higher Education System in America

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American Education: A Broken System
One message is delivered relentlessly in American education: Everyone should go to college. As a result, competition within the college admission game has been increasing for several decades as more and more students apply to attend universities. While many view this upward trend in college applications and attendance as a positive shift in the value of a higher education, professors at American’s universities are increasingly exposed to underprepared students. Due to these rising college expectations in youth, a post-secondary education has become a necessity to enter the white-collar job market. Subsequently, as the number of college graduates increases, the economic markets become over-saturated with qualified job candidates. While a college diploma is an attractive asset in the job market, American universities are not appropriately addressing the needs of young people. In reality, few people either need, or are able to handle, the rigorous training that college is supposed to provide. In a 1867 discussion on the nature of education, John Stuart Mills told university students, “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood” (qtd. in Murray, par. 1). Too many people are attending college, resulting in underprepared students, a decrease in the value of a college degree, and a shift in the goals of education. In order to the American college system to effectively prepare citizens for civic participation, the higher education system must refocus its goals in order to simultaneously promote equality and adapt to inequality. The social stigma surrounding vocational education and career tracking must be removed, and a multi-faced system that allows for both liberal-arts-based universities and skill-focused colleges to coexist should be established.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue facing America’s university system is the absence of a clear set of universal goals for education. David Larabee, associate professor at Michigan State University, has determined that three competing goals for American education have been at the root of educational conflicts over the years: democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility (Larabee 1). Conflict over these competing visions for education has resulted in a contradictory structure for the university system that has impaired its effectiveness. More important has been the increasing focus on the social mobility goal, which has reshaped education into a commodity for the purposes of status attainment and has elevated the acquisition of credentials over the pursuit of knowledge.

The democratic equality approach to education asserts that a democratic society cannot persevere unless it prepares all of its youth to take on the “full responsibilities of citizenship in a competent manner” (Larabee 43). All Americans depend on the competence and the education of our fellow citizens, since we put ourselves at the mercy of their collective judgment when making decisions on how to run our society. In the democratic system, all people are considered equal, but this political equality can be undermined if the social inequality of citizens grows too great. Therefore, schools must promote both effective citizenship and relative equality. The second approach to schooling presented by Larabee – social efficiency – argues that economic wellbeing depends on the ability to prepare youth to carry out useful economic roles with competence (46). The idea is that we all benefit from a healthy economy and from the economical contributions made by the productivity of fellow workers. Social efficiency, then, is the perspective in which education is seen as a public good designed to prepare workers to fill necessary market roles. The final approach presented is defined as social mobility. Under the social mobility approach, education is a commodity, the only purpose of...
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