Should Fewer Students Go to College?

Experts debate New York City mayor's controversial comment that some should pursue plumbing instead of a degree.

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

(The Root) — New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is clearly not afraid to court controversy. He has fought for bans on smoking and large sodas, despite his efforts sparking criticism and ridicule. The mayor has found himself provoking critics again with his comments earlier this month about which students should attend college.

During his regular radio show, he said the following: “The people who are going to have the biggest problem are college graduates who aren’t rocket scientists, if you will, not at the top of their class.” He continued, “Compare a plumber to going to Harvard College — being a plumber, actually, for the average person probably would be a better deal … You don’t spend … four years spending $40,000, $50,000, in tuition without earning income.”

It is worth noting that the mayor’s oldest daughter attended Harvard University. No word on whether or not she is a rocket scientist, which of course highlights precisely why the mayor’s comments were picked up internationally and depicted as controversial. Intended or not, his comments denote that increasingly, college is becoming like a luxury good. Anyone from a rich family can attend, but only certain people who are not from privileged backgrounds should pursue a college degree.

The mayor appears to have some unexpected allies on the topic. Though Bloomberg’s gun control efforts often put him at odds with conservative Republicans, onetime presidential candidate Rick Santorum famously called President Obama an “elitist” for his efforts to steer so many Americans to college. But experts reached by The Root were ultimately divided on the mayor’s fundamental point that too many students are being steered toward college unnecessarily.

Changing Landscape

As a testament to the explosion in the number of students now pursuing college educations, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, “undergraduate enrollment rose 37 percent between 2000 and 2010.” So has student-loan debt. Debt incurred by students seeking to further their education has officially surpassed credit card debt and is nearly $1 trillion.

President Obama has spoken openly of his and the first lady’s onetime student-loan debt and has made addressing the student-loan crisis one of his top priorities since being elected. His administration has worked to increase the amount of Pell Grants and decrease the percentage of income that borrowers are required to pay as part of their loan-repayment plan.

Inez Dickens, assistant deputy leader of the New York City Council, said that finding solutions to the student-loan crisis is key to solving the nation’s education and employment crisis, not steering students away from college. When asked if she agreed with the mayor’s comments, Dickens replied, “No. I think students should be given a choice so [that] those who want to college should be given the opportunity, and they’re not. Those who want to go shouldn’t have to take out all of these loans.” She highlighted federal efforts to ease the burdens of student borrowers, such as legislation that would allow refinancing of student loans and lower interest rates that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) recently introduced.

Blue Collar vs. White Collar

Dickens did highlight another problem that other critics of Bloomberg’s comments were quick to note: Pursuing certain trades can be as tough as financing a college education. For instance, there have been ongoing struggles to increase the number of women and minorities who receive trade apprenticeships in areas such as construction and plumbing. This is not an issue specific to New York but a nationwide challenge. An analysis of government data (pdf) in Wisconsin found that although minorities made up 25.9 percent of apprentice applicants, they were only 8.8 percent of active apprentices.

Another point raised by Dickens is that pursuing college versus a trade doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition, with trades being a great option for a student working his way through college or saving up to attend college one day.