Now that Humans Are Living Longer, College Should be Mandatory

Longer lifespans and a changing job market means maybe we should find more time for learning.

Nov 21 2014, 1:00pm

​Image: Nazareth College/​Flickr

Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of the book The Transhuma​nist Wager, and founder of the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.

Regardless what state you live in, at least some high school education or its equivalent is required by law in America. These mandates ensure most every kid enters adulthood with the skills to read, write, perform mathematics, and be moderately civilized. 

But in an era where scientists believe people born today may live to ​150 years of age, are we shortchanging ourselves by not requiring a longer, more rigorous period of education for our youth? Is kindergarten to high school really sufficient for centenarians, or is it time to require all American kids start attending college too?

The history of compulsory education in America goes back almost a century. By 1918, every state required kids to attend at least elementary school. Over the following nine decades, states increased their educational requirements, ensuring youth continue their schooling until at least until 15 years of age, but often until 17 or 18. Whether by traditional high school, charter school, or home schooling, in the 21st century the majority of American youth—​almost 80 percent—graduate with a high school-level education.

Most of us take this all for granted because education is so enshrined in American culture and social life. Receiving some form of schooling seems to be the one major topic that citizens—regardless of politics, race, ethnicity, religion, and wealth—agree is positive. A lot of this is due to the fact that education improves one's odds of succeeding in the job market. However, that job market is changing quickly. Last decade, the big news was jobs moving overseas to China. Now it's machines taking many of the jobs in America that are left. Experts predict that by 2025 ​a third of all jobs will be lost to robots and software.

Politicians are fumbling over themselves trying to find a way to stop this job-loss carnage, one that is a real threat to many US citizens. There's no easy answer to the problem, but one thing is for sure, getting everyone to attend college probably can't hurt. It's a well-known fact that higher education ​generally makes one far more likely to be employed, get better wages, and land the job and career they want. Studies have ​shown college grads are happier, healthier, remain married longer, and end up considerably wealthier later in life than those who stopped their educations directly after high school.

In fact, if you look closely, it's hard to find any downsides of receiving a higher education at all. Most people are genuinely in favor of the idea of our country spilling over with spunky, self-confident college grads looking to change the world. The promise of discussing Noam Chomsky, String Theory, and Moore's Law with any twenty-something-year-old you meet on the street seems refreshing.

Of course, college is about much more than just scholastic education. It's also about interacting with professors, debating peers over controversial books, and choosing a worthy major. For many, college also goes hand in hand with wild parties, foreign travel, drugs, new philosophies, and sexual exploration. It's no wonder many people call college the best years of their lives.

So why doesn't society legally mandate such a universally positive experience? Why do we stop at high school and leave the main course of educational development on the table, untouched? 

Part of the problem has to do with lifespans. Between the 1920s and 1960s when many states passed the bulk of their compulsory high school education laws, lifespans averaged about ​63 years of age. That left an 18-year-old high school grad with paltry 35 years to find a spouse, have babies, make a career, and get prepared for a decade long retirement before dying.

What a difference a few generations make. Most youth today expect to live to at least 100. Marriage is in ​slow decline. Retirement seems boring. And increasingly men and women are seeing IVF culture as a safeguard to push back having children until their late 30s. All this leaves much more time for pursuits like travel, professional ambitions, education, and even just simple loafing. Extended longevity and advancing reproductive science are wonderful things, but they're really just the tip of the iceberg. In the future, expect these trends to sharply accelerate, giving both women and men much more time in their 20s and 30s to figure out what they want to do in life.

With all this extra free time, doesn't it make sense to require our youth to educate themselves more?

Here lies the real conundrum with upcoming generations. With all this extra free time, doesn't it make sense to require our youth to educate themselves more? It will only help them figure themselves out more and give them the skills to reach whatever dreams they want. Unfortunately, the problems with such a proposal are deep and multifaceted. For starters, such a proposal reeks of authoritarianism. It's understandable to demand 17-year-old go to school. But a 21-year old who is already a bonifide tax paying adult? Compliance with such a law might be impossible. College dropout rates could soar. Our culture has long established that once a kid hits 18 and is out of high school, they are a free agent—a master of the universe.

Another issue critics will have is the complaint that mandating higher education will mean the Mark Zuckerbergs and Tiger Woods of the world won't be able to start their companies or turn pro in their sports, since they'll be forced to go to school. An easy way around that dilemma is to create a college equivalent test, similar to the high school ​GED. Kids that are smart enough to pass can skip out on school if they don't want to go. They'll miss out on the fun, but at least society will know they've got the smarts to succeed.

The biggest issue about compulsory higher education, though, is affordability: Who is going to pay for almost 20 million American youth to go to college? You won't convince an entire generation of students to take out loans. America is already facing a serious school ​loan crisis. Maybe, society could incentivize attending college. Might we pay students to get an upper education, like some places in Europe? Or what about offering significant tax benefits, or even creating a monster sister-bill to the existing ​GI Bill?

Another idea could involve lessening prison operation costs across America. According to a recent ​report, we spend four times the amount on the American prison system than on education. Many convicts are between 18-22 years of age. Perhaps college would keep them out of prison and significantly drop incarceration and judicial costs. It might be enough to help foot a compulsory college education bill while also improving crime rates around the country.

As challenging as financial considerations for all this might be, the flipside of the coin and its liabilities might be more daunting. In an age where jobs are being lost to machines and China may already be academically our superior, perhaps America needs to dig deeper into its pockets to make its kids smarter. Perhaps the more important question is: In order to protect our future and our nation, can we afford not to have all our youth receive some higher education?

Its worth mentioned too that getting a college education is no longer exclusively living in dorms and learning in brick and mortar classrooms, many of which are halfway across the country. Education is moving online in a big way; virtual classrooms are popping up everywhere. Already, almost all higher education institutions, from small liberal arts colleges to the Ivy League, now offer online classes. Many future students might not even need to leave their homes to get a bachelor's degree. Online education is generally far ​cheaper than attending a traditional college, and this could significantly help with compulsory upper education costs.

America is entering one of the most challenging times it's ever faced. We are up against increasing wealth inequality, frightening climate issues, and growing technological dominance over nearly every aspect of our lives. Are we going to shortchange our youth because we can't afford it? Or because it's too bossy of us? Or because it requires going against decades of institutionalized culture. Perhaps it's time to ante up: Build new colleges. Hire new teachers. Forge new curriculums. And create a country full of the smartest, brightest, most inquisitive minds on the planet. The brains you insist on our youth having now will carry us all later, no matter how terrifying or beautiful the future becomes. For almost a century America has held that education is a necessity, but we should be cognizant of increasing the length of that education as our citizen's lifespans increase.