Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Should We Give Up on College?

vonzastrowc's picture

The dream of college for all is one of the first casualties when jobs dry up and the future looks bleak. More and more people are questioning the wisdom of paying big tuition for what could be a small return. Technical school may be a better bet, they say, especially for poor youth who can't afford to get into debt.

They may have a point. But I think it's a very bad idea to retreat from our commitment to get many, many more poor students through college. At the same time, it's unwise to assume that education alone will solve our economic woes.

The "college for all" argument is important, because it offers a vision for overcoming stubborn class inequities. Let's face it, the vast majority of wealthy parents expect their kids to go to college. Even some of those pundits who pooh pooh college in the pages of the Times or The Wall Street Journal would likely pitch a fit if their own children decided to go the voc-ed route. Poor children face a very different reality.

It may be true that college isn't for everyone. But until student inclination--and not income--becomes the major sorting mechanism for college, I'm not ready to abandon the focus on college. After all, those who never went to college are getting hit hardest by this recession. The poor get poorer.

College boosters may share part of the blame for the backlash against the focus on college. The promises we've made to kids seem quite grandiose at a time when recent Harvard grads are vying with each other for unpaid internships. Education alone offers no guarantee of success in these dark days. Schools alone can't save a sputtering economy.

But the promise of college, together with the promise of a future beyond college, are very important motivators. In a recent blog post, Kilian Betlach explains why confidence in the future is so important. If college is nothing more than a ticket out of struggling neighborhoods, then it could be a Pyrrhic victory. "Success cannot mean leaving," he writes. Kids need to see a bright future in their own communities.

Schools will have to become "true community centers," Betlach insists, "the locus of change and expansion and the ongoing sense of what's next." They will have to join forces with their communities to restore a sense of hope and promise. Otherwise, that college dream can seem awfully abstract to poor kids, even when the economy bounces back.

Those Harvard grads will be all right in the end, even if they don't end up as fabulously wealthy as their older friends did. But I can't say the same for young people in Detroit or East L.A.

So let's not give up on the push for college. But let's not make education the only engine of our economic resurgence.

(Hat Tip to Jose Vilson for his link to Betlach's blog.)