Education in America – Part II

Higher Education: Public, Private, and Community Institutions



Tell Me Again -Why are We Having This Conversation?

Education is one of those things people tend to get excited about if they have family members engaged in the education system or they hear of some scandal afoot. But otherwise, it fades in the background for many of us. That is a mistake.

Education arguably does more than almost any other element in shaping success or failure for millions of people. It is – or is not- the gateway to opportunity. It is the single largest expense category for most local governments. Whether you are personally engaged in education or not is irrelevant to its importance for all of us. What kind of society we live in is shaped in large measure by education.

So let us try to get this right.

 Public Colleges and Universities

Many of you who will read this posting have spent much of your adult lives working in the education system, and so I welcome your thoughts on all this. You have been closer to it than I. But I bet we can agree on a number of things about our public colleges and universities.

For starters, financing has always been a challenge, but even more so during the pandemic, as state and local governments faced economic challenges on both resources and expenditures. Second, tuition seems to be going up markedly in most places, putting the whole option out of reach for many.

Third, the hierarchy of power seems out of kilter in more than a few places. We have seen a plethora in recent years of sexual abuse and other crimes, most often in athletic departments, that grew largely on a foundation of no oversight and the power to ignore the rest of the institution. Let’s not even get started on coaches or athletic directors that make more than chancellors or presidents.

But it’s not all bad news by any means. America’s institutions of higher learning remain the envy of the world. Many of the world’s best and brightest seek to come here to study, and many stay on to contribute mightily to our society. That flow took a real hit during the Trump years, a condition for which Australia and Canada thanked us heartily. They have recruited talent they could not have dreamed of in the past. Hopefully, that trend is beginning to reverse.

Many institutions are doing great, innovative work to bring in disadvantaged students and diverse student populations. Nobel prize winners and similar marks of excellence still abound. In short, there is much to celebrate, much to nurture, and no small amount to repair.

Private and For-Profit Institutions

This really is two separate categories. We have a fine tradition in this country of private colleges that have long been, and remain, leading institutions of learning. Large and small, some church affiliated, many are not. You may have heard of a couple of these: Duke, Stanford, Davidson, for example. They do the job nicely, thank you.

And there are more of them than people might think. My own home state of NC has about 50 such institutions, enrolling almost 90,000 students at last count. As a group, they provide a valuable counterpart to public institutions

Somewhat related to this group are the private for-profit institutions that have sprung up over the past couple of decades in large numbers. Here, the results are much more mixed. In some cases, they provide valuable education and training at reasonable rates and in flexible modes, making it possible for many to attend who otherwise could not participate.

Then there are the “Trump University” types that have run amuck. These never were educational institutions to begin with – they were shills, designed to earn money for the investors, and not much else in the way of purpose. This need not have been the case, and it is unfortunate that this group has run so badly.

To no small degree, this has happened as a result of the failure of government at all levels to overwatch and regulate. This happens for lack of resources, lack of imagination, or intent, with friends of the industry blocking legislatures and governments from doing the right thing.

This is not unique to education. We have seen the same thing happen in private prisons, in military support services, and in medical care. There is no reason why any or all of these elements could not be supported by private commercial entities. But if government fails to set and enforce standards, it will inevitably end poorly. Perhaps now that the do-bads in commercial education no long have Saint Betsy DeVos to protect them, we can get this right.

Community Colleges and Trade Schools

Here is a community close to my heart. I love community colleges. They are so important to so many people in so many ways. For the most part, they provide access and education with great flexibility and at manageable cost. I have taken courses over the years at community colleges and attended activities at them.

I do so in large measure because I really like being around the people who work and who matriculate there. Most seem to me grounded, motivated people who make this a better country and want to do right by their families. The Bidens are in vocal agreement on this, happily.

Some community colleges have very good working relationships with colleges and universities, making it much more likely that their students can go on to complete degrees at such institutions after beginning at a community college.

Many others are in constant communication with business and industry in their region, determining what sort of skills and education employers need to provide good jobs. Many trade schools follow similar relationships, with good results.

My hope is that we can foster such relationships and more formally develop an apprentice system that has worked so well over history in places like Germany.

While it is important that those who want to go to college have that opportunity, it is equally important that those who do not want college, but a skilled trade have a path that makes sense economically and as a life choice. Skilled work should be honored and built into our society.

Getting the Mix Right

I expect that education and training will always be a work in progress and should be so. There surely is no one template that makes sense. If any country should be able to have a functional mix of private and public, of local and national, it should be America. We have work to do, but much that is good to build upon.

           Bill Clontz

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