Ray Bradbury, whose oeuvre reads as a love letter to literature as much as it does to tattooed carnival ladies, smalltown America, and life on the Martian frontier, was once like those economically disadvantaged youngsters President Obama spoke about. Intellectually curious but financially bereft, the short-story writer traveled to the Los Angeles Public Library for three days a week after graduating high school. Education mattered to him. The piece of paper—not so much. President Obama appears to have these priorities backwards. The diploma now trumps the education. That devalues the paper.
Credentialism masquerading as education acts as one drawback to universalizing college. Misunderstanding higher education as job training ranks as high on the list.
Obtaining a job stands as benefit from a degree. But it isn’t the purpose. Apprenticeship and trade schools do a better job at training students for the workforce. A liberal arts education, which mission creep has marginalized, enables students to participate in self-governance—of their souls and in the broader polis. A byproduct of this broader education enables critical thinking skills useful in any number of professions. Specialized learning—a typing class in the 1950s or a course on DOS in the 1980s—soon becomes obsolete. The liberal arts don’t.