US higher education crisis: lessons from the Chicago schools

Edward Luce:

Making college free is one of the biggest rallying cries among Democratic White House hopefuls. Given the lengths to which many wealthy parents go to game the system that is unsurprising. Last week’s FBI arrest of dozens of parents, coaches and college administrators shows just how valuable admission to the best universities has become. One Yale applicant’s parents lavished $1.2m in bribes and fake profiles to gain entry.

The contrast to how the other 99 per cent fares could hardly be starker. The price of US higher education has skyrocketed. A four-year college degree now costs anywhere between $80,000 and $300,000 for tuition alone, while America’s median household annual income is $61,000.

Meanwhile, a growing share of Americans have been dropping out. Less than half of students complete their degree within six years. Many are saddled with debts, now totalling more than $1.5tn, that take a generation to pay off.

Led by Bernie Sanders, the “democratic socialist” who popularised the pledge when he first ran four years ago, free college has become a litmus test with the party’s base. Yet the Democrats are silent about the deepest problems in American education. Even if tuition were free, many Americans still do not want to go to college because other costs are steep and not everyone is cut out for four years of college. Many fail to complete high school because the sole purpose of doing so is to qualify for university.

The result is a stubbornly large precariat of semi-skilled and underemployed Americans. “We don’t have a person to waste in America,” says Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s outgoing mayor. “Too many kids are still slipping through the cracks.”

The solution, according to a growing number of governors and mayors, Republican and Democratic, is to reboot the antiquated system of technical education. Loosely speaking, America’s 1,332 community colleges are the equivalent of Germany’s vocational institutes. The biggest difference is that in Germany a trade is still highly valued. In America, the community college suffers from the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, says Bridget Gainer, a senior executive at Aon, the Chicago-based insurance company.