Musings on higher education

Everything went well with my surgery. I stayed overnight in a recovery room in Marshfield Clinic’s East building, and the nurses and aides who attended to me were the best! I never had to wait long for anything… that is until I went to get my prescription filled at my regular pharmacy. I was informed that it would be two hours because there was only one pharmacist on staff that day.

The shortage of pharmacists in this country predates COVID, so no one should be lumping this shortage in with other worker shortages. The solution to this kind of shortage lies within education.

As someone who has taught courses within the UW System, the Wisconsin Technical College System, as well as a private for-profit college, I have seen the flaws in higher education and how it is funded. There are students who enroll in classes who have no intention of earning a degree. These students are looking for an easy loan, and federal student loans are amazingly easy to get.

Students typically borrow more than what they need for tuition, books, and supplies. The idea behind borrowing extra money is to help the student pay for their living expenses while in school as the rigorous schedule a full-time student must follow often allows for very few hours of employment.

Nearly every semester I taught classes, I had at least one student who would show up the first day of class and then not show up again. The student would wait to drop the class so that they could pocket most of the student loan money they received. In the UW System, instructors can drop these students from their classes pretty early on, but that had not been the case with the other schools I taught at. The head of Student Services at the private for-profit college I taught at referred to such students as “Dollar Shoppers.” They were not at school to learn; they were there to receive a loan that they never intend to pay back.

The private for-profit colleges are plagued with these students as anyone can enroll in classes at such institutions without having to meet certain benchmarks. When Betsy DeVos was the U.S. Secretary of Education, these institutions received more federal dollars than ever before, and a lot of that money will not be paid back. Under the student loan system we have in this country, taxpayer dollars are funding a lot of things that have little to do with higher education, and that is why I often argue in favor of free tuition at public universities and community colleges as a replacement for Federal Student Aid because the money would solely fund education. Without access to federal dollars, many private for-profit colleges would cease to exist, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

I have tried to explain my position on this issue to so many people who just shut down when they hear “free tuition,” even though replacing the student loan system could save us all some money down the road. Given this trend of people being incapable of actual discourse (perhaps because on social media, no one knows if you are listening anyway), a different solution should be presented.

The first part of this solution is to eliminate all federal aid to students at private for-profit colleges. Not everyone who defaults on a student loan has attended a private for-profit college, but students at these institutions are much more likely to default on their loans.

The second part of this solution is to look at professions where there is a shortage, which includes many medical professions that require more than four years of college, and offer free tuition for students who enter those programs. This is what Canada has done.

Offering free tuition to anyone, regardless of their financial situation and often ignoring merit, to attend either a one semester certificate program or a two-year degree program is not the answer. BS (as in bull shit, not Bachelor of Science) degree programs are not limited to four year institutions. We do not have a shortage of manicurists in this country, but we do have a shortage of OB-GYNs.

When it comes to education, we need to put our money where our needs are. If someone has the scientific acumen, and wants to become a pharmacist or a general practitioner, they should be able to complete their schooling without paying so much as one red cent.

While there is debt forgiveness for certain individuals entering an in-demand field within the public sector (something that should encourage more attorneys to spend a couple years as a much-needed public defender), many people are unaware about going about having their student loan debt expunged in this way. If someone knows that they will not accrue debt by choosing a certain program of study, we may better fill our skills gaps in this country.

As we encounter frustrating worker shortages, our policy makers ought not get mad; they must get better. Get better at solving the problem of the skills gap and get better at serving the people they represent. As I heal, I think of what legislators could do to heal this nation. Solutions exist if people are willing to listen.