Nick Adams’ argument against college, Class Dismissed, might seem an odd fit for Hillbilly Highways. But, coming from a rural, working class, blue collar background, college was my gateway to the professional and managerial elite. I experienced firsthand some of the class bias embedded in the process. And I saw friends who should have gone to college not go and friends who shouldn’t have gone to college go.
This is in the Hillbilly Highways wheelhouse because the question at the heart of the book is more relevant—and higher stakes—for a people who are disproportionately working class and blue collar and who are more likely to be first generation college students. Adams’ target audience is 17-year-olds trying to decide if they should go to college and their parents. My target audience for this review (or “review”) is roughly the same then, but specifically thinking of the people I know (and I’m of an age that I have a lot of high school friends who are in this boat with their kids).
Of course I have a pretty big vested interest in all this. My college experience is as anecdotal as any of the stories Adams tells. But it did prove hugely beneficial for me personally. I teach at a regional public university (you will see me stick up more than once for regional publics). The amount of money I’m putting into my baby daughter’s college fund every month shows I’m pretty damn confident she will go to college. I am a big proponent of the skilled trades—a large part of the impetus for writing this review—but I also live in a state with a shrinking pool of high school graduates. More money for skilled trades necessarily means less money for four-year universities. But I also feel like I can say what I think because I lack the power to bring the entire system crashing down around me even if I wanted to (and because the First Amendment, tenure protections, a union contract, and a thin veil of anonymity shield me from retaliation).
This is a big issue. Two-thirds of high school graduates go to college, but fewer than 40% graduate in four years. That 60% have a problem. They borrow more money for school. And if they never finish they earn significantly less than the average holder of a bachelor’s degree but significantly less than the average holder of an associate’s degree. And there is a big class divide in that stat. Your parents earn more than $90k per year? You have a 1-in-2 chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by 24. Your parents earn less than $30k? Your chances drop to 1-in-17.
There is a regular cottage industry in running down our higher education system. I have seen too much commentary less interested in seriously engaging with the issues than with scoring cheap points, easy clicks, and book sales. From commentators who probably happily cash the checks and send their kids to Ivy League schools. Adams, at least, doesn’t fall into that group: for one, he doesn’t have kids. And he has the right basic approach to the book. It is a meandering but that left me underwhelmed, nonetheless.