The more we know

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

One of the best sight gags in the 1978 comedy “Animal House” comes from the image of John Belushi in a shirt that simply reads “COLLEGE.” No specific school. Just “COLLEGE.” We learn in the movie’s closing credits that Belushi’s barely literate character goes on to become a U.S. Senator.

I think of that image often as we hear new arguments about the cost of college, rising student debt, and challenges in matching educations with actual jobs in our rapidly changing economy.

First some disclaimers. I am a full time instructor of communication at Hibbing Community College but don’t speak for my employer here. Still, I do want people to go to college, mine in particular. I also personally benefitted from higher education. College hoisted me into the middle class like a squealing pig into the back of a pickup truck.

Nevertheless, I’ve met many people whose experiences differ from my own. Some got a degree that didn’t lead to a job they thought would be waiting for them, or to a job that didn’t pay much. Others attempt a degree, don’t finish, but are still stuck with the debt or unpaid bills. Still others weren’t prepared for college or failed to exert much effort. Many stories with as many different outcomes.

The big picture numbers are staggering: Almost 45 million Americans hold about $1.5 trillion in American student debt. That’s more money than Americans owe in credit card debt. It’s all wealth that could be in the pockets of working people but is instead tied up by credit houses, making the rich richer.

Many reasons exist. The cost of public and private college have indeed risen exponentially over 40 years. Unaccredited, for-profit colleges use rosy advertising to push programs that cost more than they should. An entire industry of predatory loan practices cropped up during this same period. Students often have little knowledge of how loans work, taking out more than they need. Even when students do understand student debt they must navigate a post-college gig economy where paying back the loans takes far longer than they hoped.

All of this leads many among today’s population of young people to conclude that college, especially college debt, isn’t worth it. I’ve heard very articulate arguments to this effect from academically successful students.

One persuasive speech I watched last year argued that today’s young people have been raised in an environment where information is available at the touch of a screen. Why bother sitting in a classroom? In another argument, Grand Rapids High School senior Dixie Love writes in an Oct. 26 Duluth News Tribune op/ed that students can earn more long term in fields that don’t require traditional four-year degrees.

Meantime, while students lament the cost of college, employers bewail the lack of qualified job candidates for skilled positions. Sometimes this is because businesses want people to work for less. But quite often there is a real lack of people trained in the right kinds of skills. Good money sits on the table with no takers.

“Don’t go to college, go to trade school.” You hear this sometimes. Well, I work at a public community college that is also a trade school. Here, I think there can be confusion about what the word “college” really means.

The liberal arts form the core of most four-year college education programs. And no, “liberal arts” does not refer to politics, but to the tradition that broad exposure to many fields of human knowledge makes a student a more rounded person. They become a more versatile thinker with an understanding of how to become a leader in society. The tradition began thousands of years ago and remains responsible for the sum of most human knowledge: The scientific method, language, etc.

Meantime, technical training prepares students to work in a specific job. This practice has also existed for thousands of years, though has only more recently been formalized in what some call trade schools. For centuries the practitioners of trades learned their craft through long apprenticeships which were often unpaid.

Today, learning a trade costs less than a four year degree if only because it typically takes much less time to complete the training. Here in Hibbing, a student can become a nurse, electrician, or mechanic in two years, or a dental assistant or HVAC professional in one. All of these jobs allow a person to own a home and raise a family while saving for retirement. Obviously this is a great option for many students.

Still, a liberal arts education IS the right choice for some, if they know what to do with it. The degree isn’t the end. It is the beginning. A curious student of life knows how to use the library of the world. This means so much more than having Google. It means knowing what to type into the search bar and how to understand the results.

It’s true. You don’t have to go to college. People without college degrees can make a living and some have been extremely successful. But those who have been successful didn’t accomplish their feats *because* they didn’t go to college, but rather because they possessed inherent skills, strong work ethic, and sometimes just good luck. They’d likely have been successful no matter what. But for every Bill Gates there are thousands of people whose names we do not know and who could really use $124.50 right about now.

In fact, we humans need to know things. Not just facts, but the words, history, science, math and basic truths behind them. We don’t just need to know information, but why it matters and how we can use it to build ourselves and our society.

There are a lot of ways to make this happen. “College” is one. “Technical training” is another. Together, they become powerful tools for humankind. They cannot be made mutually exclusive. We must help students make an informed choice and then value equally those who choose one or the other. And then we must make the right option possible for everyone.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Great article. My son is a great example. Got a Bachelors Degree in Political Science and played on the tennis team. Worked in finance and journalism ( wrote for the Hibbing paper for a year). Started teaching tennis to kids, got an opportunity, and now runs his own tennis business. He uses the learning and thinking skills he learned in college every day. Keep up the great work Aaron.

  2. Good piece. I think more should be said about the “exponential” increases in tuition. I can remember when tuition at the University of Delaware (where U first went) was $9/credit hour. Now it is $530 ($1423 out-of-state). The U bribes the legislature with free grad student labor and in return no real questions are asked. I strongly suspect it’s similar in MN. How and why has this come about? I feel there must be some de-facto collusion between the education industry and the lenders who profit so handsomely from “student loans.” And see this:

  3. Reid Carron says

    Exactly right. This piece should be reprinted in every rural newspaper in the US.

  4. I know many people in the category of “work” who will never be earning a high level salary because the “cream rises to the top” and who cares about the others in the US employment dynamic. These people primary have aspired to the arts. If the person aspires to make a statement with their art as an actor or singer well good luck. Barriers are in place to prevent success be they political or otherwise. How far have we come since “The Cradle Will Rock” in all of the arts. We say the arts are lush and but no financial rug put under any but the obligers. I am sure you know what is happening in the budget to arts funding on a national level. The under branch of the overlooked are the people who serve teachers, social service and even most in the armed forces. All are treated as if disposable. And the for profit growth in these sectors are no gain for employees in these areas. Things are up side down. As a retired teacher of 42 years I can barely advocate for college anymore as I once could. There is no way the debt accrued should be as debilitating as it has become. My first semester at Hibbing Community College with if I remember correctly was under a hundred dollars for 18 credits. No trouble making that money working at a local shoe store. Something needs to be done or the future will literally be lost.

  5. There are issues with the system and perception of education right now. I am a big proponent of the higher education system, but the general thinking that every kid needs a bachelor’s degree is causing problems. Large colleges and universities have been investing money for extras to attract students to come with easy to get loans to pay for these student life items. Kids are going to school because they are told that is what they are supposed to do. I think many would be much better served going to community college, tech college, or the military if they don’t know what they want to do so that they can get a better feel for what they want in life before making the big investment in time and money. It is important for everyone to get a good base education so that they can understand the financial, legal, and even political items that will affect their life whether they plan to be a logger, nurse, writer, or engineer, but we need to be helping them make good decisions on the way there.

  6. Since 2010 or so most student loans are held by the Federal government, not rich “credit houses”.

    50 to 100,000 in debt is a lot of money to pay for a bachelors degree without a plan to pay it back. The kids are being sold a bill of goods.

    Unfortunately the large philosiphy, art history, and gender studies companies haven’t hired anyone for years.

    As for the “college experience”, well, Animal House certainly comes to mind.

    I’ve heard it said go STEM or go home. Maybe with accounting added.

    There’s a lot to be said for Tech Schools and apprenticeships. They get you out and working in a year or two at some very well paying jobs.

    If you come from a very rich family, fine. Go to a party school and major in anything you want. It will make no difference. If you want to start a very rich family do your homework and choose your major wisely.

    • Whether the credit house is private or public is rather unimportant to the payer, though at least federal loans are needs based and often available at no or low interest to qualifying students. As I say above part of the problem is in how students take out loans — often without much advisement at all.

      As for the rest, I hear you, but this line of thinking is just as problematic as saying that everyone should get a full four-year liberal arts education. I made a good life for myself with a liberal arts education. This blog and my written work would not exist were it not for my exposure to more than STEM. Hell, I wasn’t any good at math. I was great at literature, writing and history. So, what about kids like that? No arts? OK. The development of the arts would stagnate — less exposure to classical music, art and no understanding of the most memorable images and sounds humans ever created. No, the arts doesn’t pay as much, but successful societies find some way to support artists somehow. All of these much maligned majors do have their role, and in their own way contribute something to the expansion of human knowledge. Is it the right fit for everyone? No, but so what? Neither are the trades. The operative problem is the same: students, without advisement and as members of a largely misinformed narcissistic society, lack information to make good choices.

      One-size-fits all doesn’t work — not for lib arts or STEM. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time. Different people have different optimal outcomes. It’s about balance, not one “side” “winning.”

      I chose not to get into higher educational funding for this piece, given that it’s a whole other subject. But part of the rising amount of debt is related to the quantifiable reductions in state support for public colleges. Paying for college with a summer job is not possible now, as it was for people who grew up in the 1940s-’70s. So lower middle class people in particular are forced into loans.

      College was never a catch-all solution; we’ve just turned the natural process of experimentation, failure and success and turned it into a life-altering financial gamble. I don’t know why at least a two year degree wouldn’t be made free or near-free in a wealthy civilization. Attach community service or military requirements if you must. Cut off students on academic suspension. It makes no sense that we make it so hard for so many people for no other reason that to protect the financial interests of families who already have money.

      • I don’t know of a community service option off hand but the military will pay for college, even just joining the Guard. Of course there are those pesky deployments…

        I read and hear so many stories of kids just out of school with over 100,000 in debt and absolutely no prospects of employment in their degree, or at anything at all above minimum wage. It’s heartbreaking. Only a few of them with gumption enough to succeed on their own will make it.

        I love classical music and while I was getting my engineering degree I sang in concert and church choirs. Yes, the arts are important. Unfortunately other than teaching school very few can make a living out of an arts degree.

        Many arts fall into the hobby category, something you do without compensation because you enjoy doing it. Not everyone can be Bob Dylan or Peter Frampton, to name two local people who left town to earn their fortune.

        Economics isn’t everything but it is a lot. Again, choose your major wisely.

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