Education: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?

~ The School of Athens by Raphael

Humanity has came a long way from being cave dwellers and hunter-gatherers to living in metropolitan cities with electricity, a steady supply of water, and public transportation. Of course not all of us are so fortunate. The best of us are heaped with public conveniences that we often take for granted. The less fortunate have no food and water, let alone electricity.

Regardless of our living conditions, one cannot deny that a huge majority of the population of human beings today enjoy a standard of living that far surpasses that of the early caveman or hunter-gatherer. At least we cook our food properly (although this may be the cause of our shorter lifespan). And so we ask ourselves why have we been able to move forward from primitive men to a civilized society.

So many things, from so many different sources, have driven human development both intellectually and materially over the centuries. The ice age forced the early human beings to survive in the harshest of environments. The existence of strong wild animals like the sabre-tooth tiger and mastodon made us invent the early stone weapons to defend ourselves. But at its core, at its most fundamental level, human development is driven by one thing: Our ability to learn.

It is humanity’s limitless ability for learning that has enabled us to navigate vast oceans and even to venture into outer space. It is our capacity and rate of learning that differentiates us from other life forms on this planet. Learning, in its most basic form, means coming up with solutions to problems based on past experiences. Systematic and structured learning is what we call ‘formal education’. In other words, formal education is learning plus institutions, tangible buildings, qualified lecturers, lecture halls, examinations and credit hours.

Each generation of youth that had the privilege of going through college and university learns from the experiences of past generations. In turn, they build atop the foundations and principles established by others and contribute back their experiences, their successes, and their failures, to the education effort of the next group of younger students. Human progress have been able to continuously move forward because education skips the process each individual relearning for himself what his predecessors have already learnt. Simply put, it eliminates redundant effort in the learning process.

Although history have shown us that human beings do sometimes regress to a more primitive state, say for example during the Dark Ages, human development have generally been able to continue in a positive and constructive direction through education.

As a result, we find today that more and more people spend a far longer period of time in institutions of learning before entering the workforce.

In ancient times, there was no such thing as social mobility. If you are a farmer’s son, you are fated to become a farmer yourself. In the past, might is right. European (and practically any other) aristocrats were above the law and had the power to send people of the lower classes to jail or the chopping board for no apparent reason. Also in the past, many people were slaves. They were forced to work under masters who abused them. In the past, Europe lived under religious tyranny and oppression. Books were burnt and so were the men that wrote them. The same thing happened in China during the reign of the First Emperor. Freedom of thought and speech was suppressed. And no one at that point in time could do anything about it!

So much have changed in the world that we live in today.

For the things that have changed for the better, we can only thank education. It was the educated intellectuals like Voltaire and Rousseau that made the gunpowder that blew up the old regime in France. They allowed freedom of thought and speech to pour through the cracks of tyranny and oppression into the rest of human civilization. It was the educated that came up with laws, however imperfect they may be, that guaranteed that justice and protection is given not only to the powerful but also to the powerless and innocent. It was the educated people of the world that established the key tenets and principles of human rights. It was education that allowed social mobility and meritocracy. No longer would a farmer’s son be doomed to be a farmer himself.

But this driver of human development is now becoming from part of the solution to part of the problem.

It is not education itself that is the problem. Rather it is the way that we have structured the opportunity of people that get education. The job market today is increasingly in need of individuals that have gone through higher education. Entry-level jobs increasingly require at least a bachelor’s degree in the relevant field. However, the costs of education have tripled from the 1990 to 2011. Faced with the prospect of unemployment and ever increasing costs of education, the solution to many is simple. Students take loans. Or they can skip education altogether.

You might think that surely the higher cost of education is only a problem to poorer, undeveloped countries but not to developed nations. However, recent data seems to point otherwise. Two government reports in the United States portray a very different picture from what many people believe. The report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York stated that $870 billion in loans carried by approximately 37 million present and former students exceeded the debt on Auto loans for all Americans (Wessel & Banchero, 2012). At its present levels, outstanding student debt exceeds the total credit-card debt in the United States. The second report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pointed out (to the embarrassment of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) that by adding interest that has been capitalized onto outstanding loan balances on delinquent and defaulted loans, the real total outstanding student debt exceeds $1 trillion!

Important and yet ever expensive higher education for the middle class and hardcore poor (that are unable to obtain scholarships) has caused the following: either take loans, participate in higher education, and become a debt slave when you are out working; or start working immediately and skip higher education altogether with the risk that you will land a lower paying job. The reality of a heavy debt burden discourages students to pursue higher education or even to complete it. Hence, the growing number of college and university dropouts in the United States.

This may sound simpler than it really is. An article on education in the Wall Street Journal (Wessel & Banchero, 2012) stated that individuals in the United States that have only a high-school diploma had an 8% unemployment rate in March 2012. That is roughly almost double the 4.2% unemployment rate of a college graduate. Also, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn 45% more in wages on average compared to high-school graduates.

The future seems bleak for the less fortunate. And when I say less fortunate, what I really mean are those bright young individuals too poor for proper higher education.

The bottom-line is this: Higher education has become a barrier to entry for the poor into the professional workforce.

So what do we do about it?

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