The Glass Ceiling of Higher Education

If you’re born into a wealthy family then you pretty much have to try to become poor. If your family is wealthy then you can live off the interest and dividends of their investments indefinitely without lifting a finger. If you do want to work then you can use your family’s wealth to go to a good private school and then move on to a prestigious university all the while unhindered by the stress, shame and fear of making ends meet. In the end you can use your family’s affluent business connections and references to secure a fantastic, high paying job where you get to take two hour lunches and retire with full benefits.

If you don’t have rich parents then biggest obstacle between you and a good job that pays a living wage with full benefits is a college education. The other options are to start your own business, go to a trade school (which will only open low level doors for a few people) or hone a lucrative job skill on your own free time like web development, programming, singing, sports, acting or writing (to name a few). But if you want to climb the corporate ladder or get a good government job (and that’s where most of the jobs are) then you need a college degree. If you don’t have a college degree then no matter how smart, qualified or responsible you are there will always be a glass ceiling preventing you from moving above entry-level work that rarely pays a living wage or provides full benefits such as medical care. You’ll also get the bare minimum amount of time off while being held to higher standards of accountability than those above you.

It’s oversimplified to the point of being wrong to say, “If you work hard enough you can become wealthy.” It’s more accurate to say, “If you get a college degree then you can have a secure life.” But it costs tens of thousands of dollars to get a college degree from a low quality university, and you still have to pay your rent, utilities, transportation, food and medical bills while you’re going to school. If everyone could afford this then the playing field would be level, and we would have a strong case to criticize those who didn’t climb the corporate ladder. But there are millions of people in America and billions of people in the world born into households that simply don’t have the money to pay for a college education because no matter how hard the parents work their boss will never give them enough money to send their children to school.

The counter-argument is that financial aid and loans are available to everyone. So the money is available to you, and if you don’t take it then you have no one else to blame. This argument ignores the harsh reality of poverty. Many people don’t qualify for financial aid for a number of reasons. Some people can’t afford to take 4 years off of work to study because they need to take care of their struggling family. Some people don’t even know about the options available to them because they live in a crippling environment that goes out of its way to cripple them instead of empower them. Some people are too intimidated by the dizzying bureaucracy you have to navigate to “take advantage” of these options. There are a million nuanced reasons why it might be impractical for someone to use financial aid and student loans to pay for college.

Even if there weren’t real world social issues preventing people from doing so, the cost of education rises faster than inflation and government aid can keep up. So these options aren’t that effective anyway.

And it’s a self-defeating argument to say, “You can go into a half a lifetime of debt in order to make a living wage. So you have no room to complain about not having any money.” Really? Is that the best we can offer our children and our neighbors? The situation has gotten so desperate that students at the Universtiy of California have proposed that it would be better to charge a percentage of income after graduation instead of paying upfront fees. It’s a sad day in our history where indentured servitude looks good. That doesn’t support the myth that America is a land of opportunity for everyone.

Everything I’ve said so far assumes that you’re even smart enough to finish college. The fact of the matter is that a lot of people aren’t. Some of those people may have high mechanical aptitudes (for example) but are hopelessly lost in mathematics. In America you have to pass Algebra or you’re not getting a college degree. It doesn’t matter that you’ll never use Algebra. You still have to pass it if you want to make a living wage.

Some of you may be asking, what’s the big deal? Isn’t the point of a college education to prove that you’re smart enough to deserve a higher pay check? Theoretically, yes, but take a step back and look at the big picture. Since college education places a glass ceiling on your career opportunities in America the effect is that if you’re not smart enough to jump through all the hoops of a college curriculum then you don’t deserve to make a living wage. So only the smartest people in America deserve to be treated like human beings? If that’s the moral precedent we’re setting then we’re monsters.

A college degree doesn’t even guarantee you’re smart anyway. Some of the dumbest people I’ve ever met have had college degrees because they excelled at being able to bullshit their way through papers without retaining any information or learning to think critically, and if the purpose of a college education were to weed out the smartest and most deserving then we wouldn’t lay out the red carpet for athletes to ride through college on scholarships and reduced academic standards.

College education in the form that it exists in America today doesn’t serve the lofty purpose of elevating the most deserving. It has become a tool of systematic economic oppression. It elevates the rich and it puts a very real, very firm glass ceiling over the heads of the poor and academically-disinclined who are nonetheless full of potential in their own ways and deserving of a fairer share of the profits they’ll earn for whatever company they end up sacrifice their infinitely valuable lives working for.

The measure of a man is not the degree on his wallet. The measure of a man is the blood in his veins, the breath in his lungs and the (divine?) spark of consciousness in his brain. Yet we treat those without a college degree like animals.This is not a civil way to run a society or its economy.

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