I live and work in Princeton but spend part of each week in New York City, which occasions quite a few rides on the New York subway system. I often take the “1” train, which runs from the Staten Island Ferry in the south up to the Bronx. It thus strings together like pearls on a necklace stops at New York’s financial hub, the hipster precinct of the West Village, the commuter warren of Penn Station, the pulsing Times Square heart of Broadway tourism, and the full run of residential neighborhoods, from the Upper West Side world of Zabar’s sliced nova to the urban grunge of the Bronx. Humanity is here in all its Melville-ian variety—including varieties who might be persuaded that the ticket to a happier life is a little more education.
Subway cars are a rolling index of such aspirations. This morning I jotted down the marketing wit of colleges displayed on just one side of one car. Monroe College declares, “Your career will now be making express stops only”—a play on the dreaded announcement that the train is about to skip your local stop. “Start here. Go Anywhere,” promises BMCC, Borough of Manhattan Community College. “Choose your next career at Apex,” advises Apex Technical School, with pictures of a welder, an automotive technician, and some other cheerful tradesmen plying their skills. “Think master’s in education. Think MCNY,” whispers Metropolitan College New York. Most succinct of all is City College of New York: “Breaking boundaries.”
Oddly in the midst of this profusion of well-intended advice is one advertisement for a different kind of service: EZ Pawn wonders if you “Need quick cash?” If you do and have a wristwatch, a trombone, or some jewelry you can spare for a few months, EZ Pawn might be your answer.
I missed the ads for the New School, New York University, Hofstra, St. John’s, and Columbia. Perhaps they were on another car—or perhaps as we subway riders are reminded at each stop, they decided to “stand clear of the closing doors.” After all, those who get their cues for college or trade school from subway ads are probably not the main target demographic of the more upscale institutions.
It was striking, however, to see these ads lined up one next to another, and a number of thoughts whisked by: We are indeed a land of unparalleled educational opportunity … So many beckoning paths to success … Colleges like street vendors hawking their wares … Vendors of ice cream, designer knock-offs, books culled from trash bins, college degrees … Vendors of ethnic-themed everything … Start here, go anywhere, but more likely nowhere … The express train to student debt … Need quick cash?
I rather like the idea that these schools and colleges are jostling one another in competition for students, but I can’t escape the scent of hucksterism. Some of the students who enroll in these programs surely gain the skills they seek and move ahead in their careers. But many are just being fleeced. They lack the aptitude or the steadiness to make much of this kind of postsecondary training. They know they need some kind of additional education because they learned next to nothing in high school. But a desire to get ahead can carry them only so far before reality kicks in. The business of these colleges—at least, most of them—is basically to feed false hopes. I don’t know how many additional welders New York City needs, but I imagine an Apex welding graduate can handle the arc.
Enough about the ads. Back to my book. I’m midway through Professor X’s rueful In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, about his experiences as an adjunct English instructor at a liberal-arts college and a community college. He has described his students as “poignantly desperate for success,” though not likely to find it in the programs they have enrolled in. They have “done poorly in high school; college is not a goal for which they prepared single-mindedly for 18 years. College is a place they landed in.”
Professor X knows he is uttering blasphemies. Community colleges, he realizes, are “American egalitarianism at its best. We are happy believing that we can and should send everyone under the sun to college.” But he no longer believes. He sees the plain evidence that his students are for the most part incapable of writing a simple English sentence; that they don’t read; and that even those who dearly want to learn are generally so underprepared academically and so overburdened personally that they seldom move beyond the most rudimentary steps.
Professor X is also aware that President Obama, major foundations such as Gates, the business community, Government (his capitalization), the media, and the entire higher-education establishment is “all for it”—“it” being the feel-good notion that everyone can and should go to college.
I expect this illusion either to fade out in the next decade, or perhaps to end more abruptly as young people discover better ways both to learn useful things and to get certified for knowing them. That’s a vague prediction, I know. I’ve never taken the train all the way to the end of the line.
This article originally appeared on August 17 at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.