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Should Everyone Go to College?

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Today is the first "official" public release of the draft common standards. (The use of the word "official," I'm guessing, is to distinguish today's release from the unexpected and unsanctioned first release of the draft standards in July. Today's draft incorporates comments that piled up after the first draft was released.) Here's our story about the revised standards posted today; it links to our story about the earlier release, as well.

As you probably know already, the common standards are supposed to help raise expectations to ensure that students are ready for the rigors of college work.

The argument that all students need to be ready for college certainly has its share of devoted supporters, fueled in no small part by a certain guy who moved into that big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this year, and has been calling for America to reclaim its former glory as a world leader in baccalaureate achievement. But the idea has its share of skeptics, too, and their arguments are part of an intriguing dialogue about how high school should be handling their students.

A couple of recent cases in point: The Urban Institute held a forum last week questioning whether everyone should go to college. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal gives the college-isn't-for-everyone argument some prominence. And a paper published recently on mindingthecampus.com, the new online magazine of the Manhattan Institute's Center for the American University, argues that precious resources are wasted by admitting to college too many students with low levels of cognitive skill, discipline, or motivation.

(The author of that paper, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, made some related points in a story I wrote last June for EdWeek's Diplomas Count report.)

There is a progressive, egalitarian appeal in the argument that all young people can and should be prepared to do well enough to earn college degrees. But there are many smart, thoughtful, and experienced people out there who are urging everyone to think more carefully before pressing most students into college, or even demanding that they be prepared for college.

Several arguments come into play here, from a flammable one about whether all students have sufficient cognitive ability for higher education to questions about whether most future jobs really will demand a college education, and whether the right career- and tech-ed options can be equally good paths for students.

Some of these arguments win more political-correctness points than others. How that "correctness" will color the debate over the draft common standards, and its outcome, remains to be seen. Here's to an open and thoughtful debate.

12 Comments

I agree that all students should leave high high school with a strong "base" of knowledge. However, I believe college is not for everyone and I am a stong proponent of Career and Tech Ed programs. Many people aren't ready for college right out of high school for many reasons. Many aren't ready until well into their adulthood. In the meantime they should have the skills and trade to make a decent living and be able to take care of themselves and their families.

I think the worse mistake this country has made has been in the field of trade schools. We have this idea that everyone should attend college.
We need to build more trade high schools in technology, nursing, and the hbi trades. Students should not have to enter a Job Corps program to receive training a trade.
Our dropout rates would decrease if students had more opportunities available to them.

America is a nation that is "about" big ideas. Colonization, Westward expansion, Manifest Destiny, Big Stick Diplomacy, and what Rudolph called the largest experiment in mass higher education ever performed in the Land Grant College syatem's establishement. I do not know if Morrill, sponsor of the first and second Acts in Congress to establish the "University of" State-schools system, thought would happen, but some writers believe that (wealthy) others feared the conferring of status on a new class of citizen by so doing. What are we, in the 21st century, afraid of in trying to prepare as many students as possible for college? Do the present academic elites hope to repeat the intentions of those who set up the Hampton-Tuskegee Institute to "teach the black man the dignity of manual labor?" That was its stated purpose, and men like our current President know what happens if you "teach the black man" the dignity of a college education instead. "They" might even get elected President! As early as the late 90's Kiplinger Foundation studies indicated that 90-95% of all new jobs in the U.S. would "require at least a two-year technical degree" to get them. Do you know what jobs Kiplinger said are left after those? Unskilled labor. So, what are we saying in the "college is not for everyone" movement? At least, let's do as Lisa proposed above and reinstate some real "technical" schools to give every student, as Gardner pointed out in his MI theory, no matter their intelligence-type, a chance at an excellent job in their future.

The most obvious beneficiary of the 'everyone should go to college' proposal is the education industry.

However, I'm not entirely sure how they propose to get everyone to go--are we going to have a draft?--nor am I sure how college graduates are going to feel about working in WalMart or agricultural laboring. I suppose there is an almost limitless supply of immigrants to do those jobs, but I doubt that there is an unlimited amount of money to put everyone through college.

And I will be very interested in the arrangements for autistic children, Down's syndrome, etc. After all, the fewer kids we leave out, the more stigmatised the excluded children will be.


Dr Husemann states that "As early as the late 90's Kiplinger Foundation studies indicated that 90-95% of all new jobs in the U.S. would "require at least a two-year technical degree" to get them."

In the UK, things have turned out quite differently. Our Government is proud of its record in creating new jobs, but now we find that virtually all of them have been taken by immigrants (most of whom cannot even speak English, let alone boast of any educational qualifications). Yet more than a third of our graduates are either unemployed or working in jobs that don't require a degree. Our call centres are chock-a-block with disillusioned graduates.

Personally, I have nothing against higher education. I've spent almost 7 years in university, and even more doing research degrees. But I don't view degrees as meal tickets. No one has ever asked to see any evidence of my education. In the real world, where people produce goods and services that other people will pay for out of their hard-earned income, degrees mean little. If education isn't valued for its own sake, it's not worth having.

knock the chip off your shoulder...why does everything have to be about color?
I grew up in a low SES household, stay-at-home mother, and four siblings. I am the only one who attended college and now work in the field of education. And low and behold...my siblings all make more money than I do.
College is NOT everyone...although we have encouraged our own 3 children to attend college (2 have graduated). But, it wasn't just about the education in the classroom...most class instruction went in one ear and out the other (until they hit their core classes). But, it is a great place for our children to grow up, become more responsible and start making decisions about what direction they might like to go.

I've read about plenty of studies that compare the average income of high school graduates with that of college graduates. I've encountered exactly zero studies that compare the average income of individuals who have earned vocational degrees/certifications with the average income of college graduates.

If anyone has any knowledge of such studies, please advise.

I'm with Lisa, above. Further, I would suggest the folks pick up and read Matthew Crawford's book, "Shopcraft as Soulcraft". He nails the issues of ethics and integrity in work, and more. (He and I share near-embarrassment over our Ph.Ds.)My feeling is that fewer and fewer folks come out of high school with real skills (that is, being able to "DO" something); and worse, college graduates abound with letters after their name that mean nothing when it comes down to skills, and being able to actually "DO" something. There is something egregious about touting post-secondary degree chasing when we so desperately need people who can do things with their hands--make things, fix things, grow things--whether to sell or simply to be useful to themselves and others. Even more importantly, we need folks who are critical thinkers more than we need consumers of things.

I read the stats all the time about how much more college grads make, and I can't help but wonder if there's something they're not telling us about those studies. Of the eleven children in my family, eight of us are gainfully self-employed, without college degrees, and in a few cases without high school diplomas. The remaining three have been self-employed at various points in their lives. Seven of us own or have owned rental property, in addition to our regular work.

On the other hand, I know many college graduates who work in areas completely unrelated to their degrees and in jobs that do not require a degree.

Obviously, there are many types of work that cannot be had without a college degree, but sadly, there are many types that are best learned in apprenticeship situations or can be learned independently that are no longer accessible to people through those avenues because education has become so tied to politics that business owners are afraid to hire competent people who have not been approved by the government -- or worse, they no longer even believe they're capable of judging competence.

Must we continue to allow the state to define and control us to this extent? It hasn't always been this way, contrary to modern mythology. At one time -- for a long time -- our country thrived with barely any government hand in the process of education.

Tammy--you can best believe that the studies about the life-time earnings of graduates don't tell the full story. For a start, they normally exclude the self-employed, who have higher-than-average earnings and lower-than-average educational qualifications. Secondly, once you strip out doctors and lawyers, who owe their high salaries to the difficulty of gaining credentials, the earnings differential drops dramatically.

In general, the employers who put the greatest value on formal qualifications are large bureaucratic organisations. The vast majority of new jobs are created by small employers, who are far more interested in what you can do. To them, your experience and attitude are what count.

As an example, my step-son is just starting his second year at university studying politics. This summer, I employed him as a researcher for think-tank reports on down-sizing Britain's educational bureaucracy. His reputation quickly spread, and this led to his getting work from the editor of the Spectator, our most prestigious conservative weekly. He's got more work than he needs, and he knows that if push comes to shove, it's the degree that will have to go. Even his professors are green with envy--let alone his classmates.

When I received my degree in 1988 for Business Education I quickly found out that academic administrators had no respect for it. That has not changed to this day except maybe to have intensified. As the recent past president of the Chicago Business Education Association and current cadre substitute teacher, I am constantly running into displaced business education teachers here. I have been informed by our 'powers that be' that "Business Education is dead in
Chicago" because according to their way of thinking "many entry-level positions are being outsourced and there is no need".

Are we on the same planet? The argument pitting business against academics is a ploy, strictly a numbers game. When high school graduation numbers are counted, no one takes into consideration the great numbers of students who never even entered high school because they dropped out before they could get there. No one takes into consideration the numbers of students who drop out of college because they can't handle the workload. Students can't afford to pay for remedial classes that offer no credit. How does no child left behind address their needs?

When Business English was available students were able to write complete, gramatically correct, sentences. We also taught them how to dress and speak in public and on the phone. Self-discipline and group interaction were just a couple of the important life lessons developed that are highly desired by today's workforce.

Business Math not only taught you how to balance your bank account, but also how to figure interest rates for major purchases and credit cards. And how did "Economics" classes end up in social studies?

Now I'm beginning to see the same thing that happened with Business Education classes happening with Computer classes. I never thought I would see the day that high schools would close their Computer Technology positions because "students already know how to use them, they learned it in elementary school or at home."

Sorry to say, but unless you are a part of a small specialty school that is specifically designed for technology or careers, your days may be numbered here in Chicago for business education majors.

What a useless discussion! There's not even enough college positions for the students we have now. And the one's that are available have price tags that make going to university impossible. First we need to make higher education available and affordable for all, then this discussion might have some relevance to reality.

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Recent Comments

  • Eduardo Martinez: What a useless discussion! There's not even enough college positions read more
  • Betty Davis: When I received my degree in 1988 for Business Education read more
  • Tom Burkard: Tammy--you can best believe that the studies about the life-time read more
  • Tammy Drennan: I read the stats all the time about how much read more
  • s h a r o n: I'm with Lisa, above. Further, I would suggest the folks read more

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