May is college graduation month, the time for celebration for students and their families. But only 4 out of 10 American students, get that privilege. A four-year college degree seems to be the ticket to ride — with access to illustrious jobs. Middle- and lower-income families, however, find it unaffordable and remain stuck behind the vicious cycle of class barriers.
Universities, especially nationally ranked research institutes, are expensive and hard to get into, as rated by U.S. News. Private colleges are selective. They raise funds from rich alumni. Even public universities that offer a similar breadth of curricula do so to attract prominent researchers to the faculty. To entice professors, universities must offer the best research facilities. Research fuels innovation which in turn boosts the US economy.
What works, needs to be preserved.
Most students attend college to find good jobs, not to be researchers. Yet they are burdened with the high cost of tuition and living expenses, for four years. The cost of college education keeps outpacing the cost of living, making it unaffordable for more and more families. According to Forbes, “from 1980 to 2020, the price for a four-year college, after inflation-adjusted, increased by 180%.”
Graduates of underfunded and understaffed high schools in low-income neighborhoods generally do not meet the criteria for college admission, and continue to remain in the middle or lower tier of society.
A report from the National Center for Education Statistics states “in 2020, (only) 62 percent of high school completers immediately enrolled in 4-year institutions.” And by most accounts, the college dropout rate is 30–35 — mostly due to financial reasons.
Employers are also overly impressed by applicants with Ivy League degrees. The selection process, low acceptance rates (4–8%), and high tuition make them out of reach for a large percentage of American students.
I propose a 2-year professional degree instead.
Four-year degree colleges, private and public, offer students far too many courses than necessary. In this process, students rack up college loans. Also after four years, many areas may not be in a hot job market, or the students may not have selected the right major, to pay back their debt. They and their family are saddled with decades of student loan payments.
President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program is a temporary Bandaid. Plus further government spending tends to increase inflation, resulting in higher interest rates for the current college applicants.
I attended a four-year engineering college in India. Then I enrolled at UCLA and earned my master’s degree in electrical engineering. With the help of my professor, I landed a well-paying job in Silicon Valley.
Looking back at my 35-year career, I see that I used only a small sliver of my college education. Did I learn how to keep learning, and to analyze problems? Of course, I did. Did I land in the hot job market? A resounding yes. By luck or serendipity, I opted for electrical engineering because I had been introduced to electric currents and circuits in high school, and happened to like it.
A shorter, more focused, and more intense college experience can be richer, where students are more likely to apply themselves. I went into circuit theory, designing electronics hardware that could be used in different systems and industries. I could have learned to do that in just two years but had to learn electromagnetic theory, mechanical drawing, solid-state physics, and programming, too.
Outside the rigor of problem-solving and critical thinking, while working intensely on the selected major, students need professional skills for the work environment such as writing, communication, and teamwork. General education takes longer to absorb and must be built into the curriculum, like in an MBA program. In my view, for good job prospects, we need to be apt in presenting ourselves, in our professional interactions, and have theoretical expertise in the chosen discipline.
I also learned much from living with other students in university housing. Learning about their diverse backgrounds and their approaches to problem-solving was an enriching experience. Plus it took me out of my home environment — to develop myself more fully.
The two years professional college degree can be made to work with higher success, I claim. People like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg did not finish college. In a speech at the Ivey Business School at Western University in 2012, Warren Buffet said, “I don’t think college is for everyone,” adding that none of his three children graduated from college. But they all got started on college education till they found their path.
We need college degrees for all college-bound students and not just the exceptions. Plus, colleges, with the same number of professors and buildings, can then start graduating twice the number of students and imparting more relevant education, I think.
I believe my proposal for advocating a two-year professional degree program has a lot of merit, even if it may not work for all disciplines, such as medicine or astrophysics. Making changes in the education system is a long and hard process, to maintain standards of excellence.
But we must strive to change it, to fulfill the promise of America, “the land of opportunity,” for all.