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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.)


I agree with the general goal

I agree with the general goal of creating an open road to college for students of all types. And yet, and yet, there is an opportunity cost for students who are shoveled into college by the expectations of their school, their culture, their parents, or whoever, when college does not match up with their talents or aspirations. I have many, many family members who went to college because they were told that it's the only way to avoid poverty. Most flunked out or dropped out (a few went back later when they were more mature, mostly to community college where they became nurses, police officers, surveyors, etc). These were, for the most part, working class kids, not privileged ones. The college experience was not only bad for them, they also emerged with big loans to pay off (or default on). Many ended up in occupations that they enjoy, at salaries/wages they can live on. They would have gotten to these occupations sooner if they had not detoured to college.

How can we indicate that the road to college is open, without forcing all high school students to commit to a path that is not right for all of them? why can't we say "you should aspire to enough education to give you a solid skill, and you may want that to be a four-year degree," instead of saying "anything less than a 4-year degree and you're a loser?"

You make an excellent point

You make an excellent point about class. I can't think of one wealthy family who would be okay if they son or daughter went to truck driving school, even if that were their passion. However, the reality is that many kids are put on a college for all path that largely because they don't have the support and resources of their wealthier counterparts, will struggle in achieving the college goal. Are we serving their needs if we push them for the stars, and they land on the moon, but are not equipped for life on the moon?

lilactree--I agree that

lilactree--I agree that college isn't right for every student. If a child of wealthy parents decides that technical school is right for him/her, then he/she should not be shoved in to college for the sake of it.

The problem, however, is that the "choice" of college vs. technical school or nothing at all tends to have more to do with family income than inner desire. Students living in poverty tend to be less well prepared for college, and they find the financial barriers less daunting. Are we willing to give in to the fact that income is the primary sorting mechanism? That makes me very uncomfortable. It makes is all too easy to give up on improving those students' preparation and making college more affordable for them.

Keishla--You're right to point to preparation and resources as a big issue. Many students end up in college and struggle academically before dropping out. Others drop out because they have to keep down jobs or face financial or social pressures. I worry, however, about using that fact as a reason to back off from the focus on college. As I mentioned above, it makes it all too easy to do much less about those students' preparation and college affordability.

Von: I totally get that

Von: I totally get that education is a gatekeeper...it always has been. But I don't think the answer is to make education a revolving door. Because we think everyone SHOULD go to college instead of everyone should have the chance to CHOOSE to go to college.

We have created a one-size fits all approach to education that puts everyone on the same track...come hell or high water. I live in Texas, and for the past few decades, all vocational programs were eliminated from public schools. The only ones to remain were mostly automotive in some places and cosmetology. What is wrong with being a auto tech, a plumber, an electrician, a stylist. Many of these people are entrepreneurs, owning their own businesses. My stylist makes more money than I do, and she works 4 days a week and fewer hours. She does honorable work.

I agree with lilac that we must not over-educate ourselves out of certain professions. There must be a balance that we don't make students see what options are out there for them, and that all work is honorable work if it makes them happy.

Keishla, I agree with you.

Keishla, I agree with you. There is a great deal in the current policy debate that makes the trades and other honorable work seem like failure. That is very unfortunate--and an unwelcome by-product of current education debates. I hope I didn't contribute to it.

I'm mostly worried about the signal we send to kids when we allow inequities in college going and graduation to persist. Far too many of the kids who don't go to college--and so many of them come from poor families--don't find work that gives them the solid living you describe.

And while we could rectify that by steering them into trade schools, I'm not comfortable with any system that consciously separates students' career trajectories by class. That happens now, and it was all too long an institution.

Is there a way to strike a balance between a policy that encourages underrepresented groups to prepare for and succeed in college--without denigrating the trades?

@Von: I don't think you

@Von:

I don't think you contributed to that negative side of the debate at all.

But I think kids don't have access to those quality jobs because they are put on a one-size-fits-all track.

The reality is that the "college for all" idea is a reflection of the past when low SES and minority students were being pushed into special ed or vocational programs. So for the past few decades, the response was to dismantle those programs. Instead of creating a better filtering process, instead of making sure that the low SES and minority students were encouraged and supported in taking academic tracks, they shoved everyone on an academic track. And as a result, everyone suffers because education has to be diluted.

I am not comfortable necessarily steering them to trade schools, but I am also equally not comfortable have a percentage of kids sit through high schools disengaged, and leave with nothing but a piece of paper.

Personally I think we are missing a great opportunity to bring green job/technical vocational programs to our schools.

"Is there a way to strike a

"Is there a way to strike a balance between a policy that encourages underrepresented groups to prepare for and succeed in college--without denigrating the trades?"

Certainly. But it would have to be a more fine-grained approach than simply telling all kids that they should go to college, which is what we do now (without supporting low-income kids in pursuit of that goal as well as we do upper-income kids).

But, Claus, if your standard is that from here on in, low-income kids go to 4-year college in the same proportion as upper-income kids do, without any adjustment for the differing levels of preparation that those 2 groups bring to the table (even when they attend the same high schools), I think you're setting an awful lot of kids up for failure and disappointment. And, you're caving in to the raw credentialism and content-less signaling that college is becoming.

Now, as part of a more rational and respectful sorting system, not based on money but on desire and preparation, we should also stop sending such a high proportion of upper income kids to college. There are plenty of failure stories there, too. We should solve the money issue by making Pell Grants just about automatic for low income kids -- meaning, simplify the FAFSA process and have school personnel walk students and their parents through it. Hands-on, in person.

We should be tracking increases in educational attainment and college-going over time in the different income levels. If someone tells me that I shouldn't be happy because my niece whose parents didn't graduate from high school has not only graduated but become an LPN, but has not (yet) gotten a 4-year degree, I think they've got it backwards.

Now, what I AM very upset about is the low high school graduation rates in our cities and rural areas, and the low quality of education that is delivered there in many cases. Fix the K-12 schools, and I'll be more sympathetic to the "send everyone to college" mantra.

And finally, not to go on for too long, I don't think it's "college or settling for the trades." People who go into the building trades have to have a great deal of talent. Not everyone who doesn't go to college is going to be able to go into the trades. I have a lawyer friend whose plumber Dad told him he would need to go to college because he would never make it as a plumber. Many of the occupations that kids will end up in might not meet with the approval of policy wonks, but as long as they end up somewhere OK, let's quit being such fussbudgets about it.

Here's an idea--why don't we

Here's an idea--why don't we rethink college? We've become so accustomed to traditional education that we don't consider alternatives. We need to have a wider variety of educational experiences than "college, voc-ed, or nothing." We have the means to send our son to college, and he is intelligent enough, but he's not academic (partially due to ADHD). I am looking for an "out of the box" college experience for him because I think he would benefit from more education, but it needs to be somewhere that motivates him and where he can achieve success. Too many universities are more interested in numbers and the status quo than truly educating young people and preparing them for life. Let's provide college experiences for poor communities that equip them with the tools to make a change in those communities.

Keishla, lilactree and

Keishla, lilactree and Anonymous--You all make excellent points. I'll try to address them in a posting tomorrow.

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