Dean on Education: Not Quite
On Nov. 13, 2003 Howard Dean addressed a large audience in Alumni Hall. The topic of Dean's talk was higher education. Dean offered a compelling plan to increase access to higher education for those who struggle to pay for college. According to Dean, "the 'College Commitment' plan guarantees eighth graders access to $10,000 per year for postsecondary education. The eighth graders who participate in the program must agree to prepare for and apply to college." Dean went on to say, "after graduating from college, students who participate in the College Commitment plan will never have to pay more than 10 percent of their income on student loan payments. If the students enter public service careers, they will never have to pay more than seven percent of their income." Finally, Dean said, "those students who work and make loan payments on a 10-year schedule will pay off their loans in full." Dean plans to pay for the $6 billion plan by repealing the Bush tax cuts.
Dean's plan provides much needed finances for college students struggling to pay for college, but I am not satisfied. Dean's plan for higher education does not solve the fundamental problem of education in contemporary American society: the condition of the public school system, particularly in impoverished communities.
Dean's plan will assist middle class students who receive adequate secondary educations but lack financial resources to fully fund college. It will do nothing for those trapped in impoverished school systems. Students who attend poor public schools must endure inexperienced teachers, inadequate preparation, overcrowded classrooms, crumbling school buildings and a scarcity of resources. These are the issues Dean needs to address if he wishes to create a country of intellectuals.
Dean has said, "[T]his country cannot afford for college to be an 'elites only' program." I agree with him. Those who attend college are those who can afford it, but they are also prepared. Students in poor public school systems may participate in Dean's College Commitment plan, but if they are not adequately prepared for college then Dean's plan is of no use. Dean must first address the poor condition of the American public school system before he can speculate that providing students with an allotted amount of money will solve America's education problem. Dean's plan would only work in a society that provides an equal secondary education for all its members. Since America is no such society, Dean's plan neglects those at the bottom of the society.
Education is supposed to be an equalizing mechanism. It is supposed to be a tool that the less fortunate can use to ascend the rungs of the social ladder. Social mobility is not possible in a society that does not provide an equal education for all of its members. In this way, education loses its ability to motivate, inspire and most importantly to elevate. In failing to provide an equal secondary education, the elitist system that Dean is fighting against is inevitable.
America is becoming a country of the haves and the have-nots where success is determined not by hard work and perseverance, but by wealth and status. Here, I am not insinuating that middle and upper class students don't work hard; rather, I am suggesting that hard work and perseverance are no longer tools that poor individuals can use to succeed in American society. Such tools only work in a society of equal opportunity. Horatio Alger stories are not possible in a society of haves and have-nots.
The disparity in secondary education has remained unanswered by Dean. His dream of allowing every child the opportunity to attend college is unattainable until the condition of the American public school system is improved. Dean's higher education plan helps those in the middle. Now all Dean needs to do is help those at the bottom, and the only way to do that is to change the structure, funding and operation of the public school system.