The Cost of Education

The nabobs run around, tearing their hair about America’s weakness in education.  Specifically, in physics, chemistry, biology, math and engineering.  “How,” they ask, “can we ever compete with the hard-rumped folks from China, India and Japan where youngsters are rigorously drilled in these subjects?”  (In the next breath, they take a meat axe to the education budget, driving tuition up to the point where education is unfordable.)

It’s a good question.  There are, I believe, two answers.

ONE.  A few years ago, one of our nephews (a high school student at the time) came out for a visit.  He’s a pretty smart kid and so the subject of education soon arose.  He volunteered his opinion that high school was, as he put it, “crap.”  His beef?  That the first half of every year was spent going over what was covered in the last half of the previous year.  “If we didn’t have that three-month summer vacation every year, I’d have been out two years ago.  Maybe three.”

“Well,” I replied, “don’t you need some time to kick back and just loaf?  Maybe do some grunt work to earn pin money?  Have enough time to let your girlfriend learn to put her tongue down your throat?”

“Sure,” he said.  “So how about the school divide the year into three equal segments with a month off between each?  That way, we still get some needed relief from the grind, but won’t have to waste all that time going over old news?  And if a month is too long to retain all the stuff we learned, how about two weeks?”

When I asked, “Wouldn’t one-month vacations scupper students’ plans to make the pin money — or help hard-up families pay the bills,” he said: ‘Who cares?  If we didn’t spend so much money an a protracted and mostly useless high school program, the school board could use the money saved to subsidize those who are in a pinch.”

I think the nephew has a good point here.  For one thing, students will be done with high school sooner and be able to get to work or go on to some sort of higher education, both of which will help our young people be more “competitive.”  For another, we could afford to let kindergarten kids start later than we do, which will let more developed brains handle the course load more effectively.

TWO.  The state of Washington has several public colleges and universities offering four-year Bachelor degrees.  It also has a whole slew of community colleges offering two-year Associate degrees.  The four-year outfits are over-crowded and their tuition is going through the roof.  On the other hand,the two-year outfits have lots of room and their tuition is affordable.  So why don’t we upgrade the community colleges and let them offer Bachelor degrees too?  Doing this would take the pressure of the four-year institutions, thereby reducing annual tuition for everyone.  As for the MBA and PhD programs, as well as post-doc and advanced research, most of this would still be handled at the existing four-year institutions.

And then there is the subject of the curriculum.  The four-year Bachelor program was originally established in the Middle Ages for fops and swells from the landed gentry.  They dwelt on such subjects as Latin and whatnot — the so-called “Liberal Arts ” — which are useless in today’s world where physics, chemistry, biology, math and engineering are so desperately needed.  If we eliminate all the pedantry, the kid who wants an education in physics, chemistry, biology, math and engineering, can probably bang out a degree in two years, then go to work.  (Of course, if a kid wants to drag it out for four years, and can afford it, he or she will be free to do so.)

Such compressed educational programs can be done, and they work.  A lifetime ago, I was in the U.S. Air Force and was given the equivalent of an AA degree in mechanical engineering in a little over three months’ time.   We went to school eight hours a day, five days a week and had homework that chewed up most weekends.  There were only twelve of us in the class with one teacher, so each of us got the kind of individual attention kids need to make successes of their learning experiences.

What’s not to like?  America will start cranking out the technologists we need without wasting their time — and money — learning a bunch of crap they’ll forget inside a year anyway.

Let’s make American education worthwhile and affordable.


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