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The College Juggernaut

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A college degree has become the perceived standard prerequisite to health, happiness, economic survival, and social mobility. But the promises of a four-year college degree are not always fulfilled, caution Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski in this Education Week Commentary. Rising tuition leaves many graduates with heaping debt and uneven instructional quality does not always pave the way to financial independence. What's more, many of the emerging jobs available to young graduates will require certificates and technical degrees, and not a standard four-year college degree, they write.

While most high schools have increased their efforts to gain students' entry into the collegiate promised land, they have not necessarily equipped students with the skills needed to succeed once they arrive. At the same time, colleges are not prepared for many of the nontraditional students they will be enrolling—and have not even begun to implement transitional programs and pathways that would accommodate these students. These disconnects illustrate how the college promise often fails to consider the necessary ingredients of long-term success. Colleges, high schools, and policymakers must consider these realities if they want to promote an educated, engaged citizenry across socioeconomic and racial divides, according to Washor and Mojkowski.


What do you think? Has the college imperative been oversold? Should more thought be given to high school transitions?

16 Comments

College, although valuable to those that succeed there, is becoming a holding area for those not quite ready, or deemed not quite ready for adulthood. The result is nearly useless degree programs and certain career fields becoming flooded with potential applicants. Like professional sports, the competition is rising for limited positions. The costs of a college education are also growing with little rise in what is termed financial aid. The most common form of "financial aid" today is the student loan. Federally insured or not, this study now, pay later program is creating massive debt. This is not really financial aid. It is college on credit. The next step will be colleges and universities competing to lure students with lower monthly payments and interest rates.

college, College, COLLEGE, when will the powers that be or anyone for that matter wake up and realize that only 25% of the jobs require a four year degree and that more emphasis be given to transitioning students by teaching skills to fill jobs that pay well and are going begging. Learning real world skills is helpful throughout a lifetime and if later, interests and career choices change there are many opportunities to aquire that education as an adult. Stop treating career/tech programs as though they are second rate and using them as a dumping ground. Career choice is just that, a choice. And while I'm at it, get rid of the general track courses in high school so students will have to make that choice.

I teach in a suburban district that straddles an upper middle class area, a working class area, and a poor area. My students are split about evenly by the economic conditions of their families. The middle class students are committed to middle class goals; nearly all want to (and expect to) go to college and have white-collar careers. The majority of the working class kids expect to go to college, but don't have any practical role models to get them there. The poor kids aren't sure what college is about; most of them are children of undocumented immigrants, and their parents' immigration status and lack of education leaves the children with little desire to commit to college or anything else long-term.

We sell college as the road to a career, but college is not about your future job. It is about completing your education and opening opportunities. While some college degrees are linked specifically to careers, most are not. And, consider, most college graduates do not remain in their chosen field for many years. (A study at UC Berkeley showed that computer science masters' graduates average working only six years in the computer science field). Students must be adequately prepared for change and personal growth.

We push college fiercely and relentlessly, but we are pushing it for the wrong reasons. One other writer noted that only 25% of jobs require a college degree; this may be true. But do only 25% of lives require education beyond the doors of their high school? Our students are not complete products by the time they leave our schools.

High school is not structured well. The one size fits all approach is outdated and unhelpful.

Students who score well on the high school exit exam should be allowed to graduate at age 16. Why warehouse students who have already accomplished what has been asked of them?

Students should have the option to take industrial and trade programs. These were still in vogue in New England when I lived there (a few years ago) but they are virtually gone from California and many other places.

I often think back to the comment from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off": "Sure, my excuses to cut high school are childish and stupid. But so is high school." As long as this remains true for our students, as long as high school appears to be a mix of education and incarceration, as long as we fail to respect our learners by acknowledging their individual wants and needs, the transition between high school and college will remain frustrating, wasteful, and inefficient.

I have a sister-in-law that graduated with a 4-year degree from the State University two years ago and is now working in a clothing store. Her boyfriend, who also graduated that year with a 4-year degree from the same institution, is a waiter. They both have a lot of debt and are forced to work in jobs that pay little and didn't need a college degree -- not yet, anyway. There are two bank tellers at my bank that have 4-year degrees in criminal justice. What does criminal justice have to do with the math and business practices employed in a bank? We just don't have enough people incarcerated in this country yet for these young people to find employment in their field. However, because we live in a society that is creating the situation where you need a degree for every job that pays a living wage, they are able to get a job at the bank. Police officers, fire fighters, bank tellers all now need 4-year degrees. Why? I'm not saying these are not difficult or important jobs. Clearly they are. But why do they require a 4-year degree? Only because we have plenty of people that have gotten one and employers will choose only among those people. If it becomes the norm for hair dressers to have four-year degrees, it would appear as somehow inherently necessary to that profession to have one. But it wouldn't be. It's just been rigged. Now as tuition prices rise beyond the reach of a greater and greater percentage of our families, college becomes in fact a way to buy a ticket into the shrinking job market for a smaller and smaller percentage of our population. Those jobs are in effect passed down to the next generation, because those are the families that have the money to pay for college. Even if we send everyone off to college, where are the jobs for them when they get out? China and India produce armies of workers that displace us for pennies on the dollar. Companies go there. No educational system will stop this from happening. It's a matter of economics, not education. We should pick up Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society and read it again. Instead of our society and the individuals that make it up frantically trying to get "ours" through college, we ought to work together to dismantle the structure that makes it artifically necessary to go at all.

I am in aggreement that education should be a lifetime pursuit, not just limited to twelve or so odd years between 5 and 17. Colleges can and do provide this continuing education. This is a great thing. Colleges and universities should not become wharehouses for the storage of our excess workers. There are too many young people that are marking time between high school and a career by attending college.
Part of the problem is economics. People who are in school are not included in the count of the unemployed. They are not employed either. College ought not to be a limbo from life.

The solution to the problem is to make EMPLOYMENT such a fierce competitor for man-power that fewer will choose to be in college, unless it has been made "un-arguably" clear to them (by employers) that they must get more college training to advance.

I know a way to make our economy SO STRONG (near 100% employment) that it will leave fewer, but well-motivated, students still in college.

This can be done by changing our present system of taxation. Bear with me while I explain further:

The FINAL SOLUTION!! for the IRS & Income Tax Problem

50 Reasons I Support the FairTax
(How many reasons can you give for supporting the present obsolete IRS & income tax system?)

Those Who Know the Facts Love the Fair Tax
“Family Friendly Tax Reform”
Tax Reform with far less pain and much more gain!
Out with the Old Code and in with the New (national RETAIL ONLY sales tax).

www.fairtax.org

1. It allows you to keep 100% of your paycheck, with nothing withheld for Social Security and Medicare payments.
2. It eliminates the regressive payroll tax that hurts the poor. Currently, every one of us is taxed a minimum of 7.65% on our first-dollar of wages up to $90,000, if we earn that much.
3. It assures that the wealthiest Americans will be voluntarily helping to fund social security with every last dollar they spend above the poverty level. Today, earnings are subject to payroll taxes only up to $90,000. The wealthiest Americans therefore do not pay into the system above that amount. If their earnings are from investments, no earnings fund the Social Security system. Under the FairTax, a single purchase (regardless of the source of the earnings) can result in greater contributions to the Social Security system than would be paid by an individual under the payroll tax of today.
4. It provides funding for Social Security and Medicare at a level equal to or greater than at present, with a stronger and broader tax base.
5. It secures the future of Social Security and Medicare because all spenders fund it and not just the workers.
6. It eliminates all personal income taxes, payroll taxes, corporate income taxes, gift taxes, death taxes, and capital gains taxes.
7. It eliminates the income tax and the IRS. Members of Congress and the public overwhelmingly agree that the current internal revenue code is cumbersome, intrusive, coercive, and inefficient.
8. It is revenue neutral with the present income tax system, funding the federal budget at current levels.
9. It will remove an average of 22% of the cost of American made goods by removing the built-in payroll tax (the other 7.65% of earnings that employers pay) and other business taxes that are now passed to consumers as an “embedded" tax of approximately 22% due to the cascading of income and payroll taxes paid by U.S. employers, at every step of production, to the U.S. Treasury.
10. It doesn’t tax used items – clothes, cars, homes. Only new items are taxed when sold by a business to an individual.
11. It is progressive, a “prebate” of the tax amount up to the poverty level is given to everyone. This means that those spending below the poverty level have a net gain because the “prebate” exceeds the amount paid in taxes. (Under the present system they pay the payroll tax even if they get a full refund of income tax withheld.)

12. It eliminates 90% of the cost of compliance. American families and American businesses waste an estimated $250 – $600 billion per year doing the paperwork necessary to comply with the tax code. That is roughly $1,000 – $2,000 annually for every man, woman and child in the U.S.
13. It creates an opportunity for our products to leave this country costing an average of 25% less, thus increasing our exports, lower our deficit balance of trade, and increasing employment at home.
14. It encourages investment in companies located in the U.S., thus providing a home for money already in the US and attracting more. The U.S. will be the most attractive tax-free haven in the world for doing business. American companies will return from offshore and overseas.
15. It encourages repatriation to the U.S. of money held by U.S. individuals and companies now in foreign countries, with no tax consequence.
16. All 290 million Americans and 51 million visiting tourists fund Social Security and Medicare with their purchases. Today only 110 million workers fund these programs via deductions from their paychecks.
17. The broader tax base includes the ten percent of our economy, an estimated $1 trillion, that today is underground or under the table. Under the FairTax, the illegal drug dealer will pay his tax just like the rest of us when he buys his sunglasses, BMW, and other items, as will those who do business for cash.
18. It allows families to save more for home ownership, education, and retirement. An average family making $50,000 will have $7,500 more spendable income.
19. It makes educational tuition a tax-free expenditure of tax-free income.
20. It makes American products more competitive overseas by removing the embedded tax from them, thus lowering their prices, which compensates for low foreign wages.
21. It makes American products more competitive at home by removing the embedded tax from them, compensating for the low cost of imported products not burdened by taxes imposed by exporting countries.
22. It removes the need for formal 401-K’s, IRAs, HSA, etc. Anyone will be able to set up any kind of savings or investment account without regard to taxes or the government.
23. It frees churches and other non-profit organizations from the expense of filing tax returns and paying their half of Social Security and Medicare payments for employees. There will no longer be any 501.c.3 or 501.c.4 non-profit tax status, because there will be no more tax to be exempt from.
24. It restores to churches and non-profit organizations the 1st Amendment right to engage in free speech, without fear of losing their tax-free status.
25. It gives individuals and businesses the right to donate as much as they want to in a given year to charitable causes.
26. It restores the 4th Amendment, protecting against unreasonable searches and seizures, from which the IRS presently is exempt.
27. It restores the 5th Amendment, which guarantees the right to due process. Under current systems the IRS has their own courts with their own set of rules not included in the 5th.
28. It cleans up a major flaw in campaign financing, eliminating campaign donations for "tax favors".
29. It eliminates wrangling in Congress over tax cuts, the tax code, and who is or is not paying a fair share of the tax bill.
30. It encourages work by letting workers keep 100% of their earnings and giving a rebate, to boot, making the notion that the more you work, the more money you have, a reality, unlike the current system where welfare is lost when you go to work, so your first dollars earned after taxes just offset what you were currently getting in welfare, making you no better off.
31. It allows more of the lower income families to become home owners by allowing a second job income above their current income (all tax free) to be applied to a mortgage. Money for down payments for homes is also saved totally tax free so that it will accumulate faster.
32. It allows families to retain farms and businesses in the hands of those who built them through the elimination of the death tax.
33. It allows families to help each other out tax-free, by eliminating the gift tax.
34. It encourages individuals to self-insure, making the health system more direct pay (no 3rd party pay), thus bringing costs down.
35. Without FICA to pay, most states, counties, municipalities, and school districts will see a large increase in their state budget revenues, additionally lowering the overall tax burden (State & Federal) for most Americans.
36. It assures that no American will find, at the end of the year, a need to get a loan to pay taxes as an alternative to penalties, interest, or cheating.
37. It restores individual privacy. The government no longer needs to know where you work, what you are earning, and what you are doing with it.
38. It eliminates the need to have a "marriage" clarification declaring who you live with, as that has no bearing at all on a state or federal sales tax.
39. It eliminates the need for courts to decide which divorced parent gets to take the tax deduction for children.
40. It reduces production costs for farmers and other subsidized businesses, leading to a reduction in subsidies, thus reducing the federal budget.
41. It eliminates the administrative costs incurred by states in collection of state sales taxes because states will piggyback the state tax collection onto the national tax collection, for which they are compensated by the FairTax ¼% administrative cost give-back. [Doesn’t this go to the retailers?]
42. It results in a windfall profit for many of those holding taxable corporate high interest bonds at the time of passage of FairTax, since they will not be taxed under FairTax. (A higher interest rate is usually paid to entice investors to buy the corporate bonds rather than go with the lower interest, but tax free, municipal bonds, now.)
43. It shifts the tax to consumption, which consumption tables over time show is more stable than income, therefore the tax revenue stream is likely to be a more stable and predictable amount.
44. It results in Federal Reserve rates being based on current consumption, which is rather stable, instead of future earnings, which are less predictable, resulting in surer inflation prevention.
45. It allows for better planning by businesses, because they no longer have to consider tax implications for everything they do.
46. It makes higher employment or better compensation possible in the small business sector where today it costs approximately three dollars in compliance costs to pay one dollar in payroll and income taxes.
47. It moves many now providing tax preparation, advice, accounting, planning, and records maintenance into an expansive economy where they will be producing goods and services. There they can add to the standard of living of all Americans and likely earn more than they do currently, instead of shuffling paper for the government (and not contributing anything economically to society).
48. It relieves citizens of the risk of facing the shift in burden of proof that is so common with the current system, i.e., the taxpayer is guilty unless innocence can be proved, when even IRS staff sometimes give conflicting interpretations.
49. It’s simple, unambiguous, and certain, the opposite of the current tax code.
50. It’s good for the environment. It reportedly would save about 300,000 trees a year that are needed to produce the paper for the IRS compliance and tax forms, enough to reach around the equator placed end to end 28 times. Also, since it taxes only new items, it would encourage buying tax-free pre-owned cars, clothes, furniture, houses, etc. Reuse is good for the environment, too.

Best Regards,
John Paul McDaniel

Go to: www.fairtax.org

No offense, but this is not a fair or unfair tax issue. Fair taxes notwithstanding, the work world the 9-5, needs to be made a bit more attractive and achieveable for the high school graduate. College is not necessary for the clerk at the local A&P, Wall-Mart, or Mc Donald's. In fact, these are good positions for the student who is working their way through college. These are businesses that could, and some do, make scholarships available.

Absolutely more attention needs to be paid to the transition from high school to whatever comes next. This is required for students with disabilities, and (when actually done right)allows for a wholistic look at the student--not only what classes are required, but what skills and interests are to be supported both in and beyond the school day.

Acknowledging that some students will not leave high school and go straight to college is not, however, an excuse for decreased rigor. The John Glenn study several years ago pointed out that students need about the same skill level whether bound for college, meaningful employment, the military or post secondary vocational education.

My daughter's high school was very clear with all students that high school was a preparation for what comes next--and were there to support a spectrum of choices. My daughter chose a 2 year educational hiatus, during which time she served as a tutor in a community service organization. This plus her high school coursework have now prepared her for college work with a much more clear direction that had she followed lock-step from high school.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH Yes, Bob,

Education issues are DEFINITELY related to the problems we have today with our persent Income Tax System & the IRS.

If our ONLY tax obligation to the "FEDS" were a simple (retail only) sales tax, that would leave us tax-free dollars to spend on education.

You said above that, "the work world, the 9-5, needs to be made a bit more attractive and achieveable for the high school graduate. College is not necessary for the clerk at the local A&P, Wall-Mart, or Mc Donald's."

Under the Fair Tax system, the economy would be "steaming ahead" so fast that businesses would hire all the High School graduates available............THEN use the higher education system to train those for advancement to higher level positions in the company.

Public schools would consult the business world in the matter of determining what to teach in order to get the students ready to go to work after graduation. Businesses would "bend-over-backwards" in their effort to make their job offerings attractive to graduating seniors.

Folks, our world is not black and white--there is no "silver bullet," no "one size fits all." We've seen a multitude of examples of successful people who didn't graduate from college and college graduates who didn't live up to our (or their own) expectations.

In my opinion, the greater concern is twofold. First, we need to do a better job of preparing kids academically regardless of their postsecondary intentions (or lack thereof). Second, we also need to provide much better preparation in terms of career counseling that would enable young people to explore postsecondary options and weigh the pros and cons of pursuing a college education, based on their individual interests and circumstances.

The article entitled, "The College Juggernaut" cited a New York Times article that called test-prep courses, "the scholastic equivalent of steroids." I object to this analogy. I have taught SAT prep for a couple of years and have seen the impact that such courses have. These courses are in no way comparable to steroids which deliver short-term gains (i.e. muscle mass and speed) and long-term damage in the form of sterility, baldness, and other health problems. In contrast, test-prep courses are beneficial in both the short-term and the long-term. They achieve the immediate goal of boosting test scores and they impart the long-term benefit of teaching logical strategies with a variety of applications.
While it is unfortunate that students with lower socio-economic status may not be able to afford test-prep courses, it is part of the reality of the capitalist system in which we live.

I feel as though the frustration and confusion that students feel while transitioning from high school to college and from college to the work world is often due to apathy and laziness. America is a country with so much, that we become a bored people, and thus ineffective. Our greatest threat may not come from outside, but rather from ourselves...we are a bored, bored nation. This is a sweeping generalization, but I do think that encouraging students to work part-time, or find internship or volunteer opportunities really helps them figure out what they want to do with their time as well as find ways that their degree can be useful (or not) through their work. College is a time of trial and error for the student. Those who are priviledged enough to attend should fill their time with opportunities that will awaken them to all sorts of job opportunities. If we do not find ways to encourage students to make good use of their time while studying, then they essentially become a waste of admissions space that another hard-working candidate could have taken. While too many job fields now require a 4-year or graduate degree, I also think that too many students are going to college to pass time, be lazy, or remain in a bubble of confusion that does not give them any social or inner growth. Going to college with this mindset can disconnect young college students from their community, their family, and the "real world" that lies ahead of them. The complaints, frustration, or apathy I've heard from classmates and peers were due to those who chose liberal arts majors that can be interesting but whose job prospects do not seem promising. At the same time, I've met peers in college who became lazy and careless in class because their job outlook was "set" since they chose an IT or computer-related major, and did not care to expand their mind any further once they secured a job. Both of these examples are very dangerous situations. One possible solution is to prepare high school and college students for the work world not only through career counseling and job fairs but also by teaching them that work is a part of life, and one should take advantage of all the time they have.

Something that seems to be uneraddressed or not addressed at all in this discussion is the cost of a college education. The primary federal financial aid that is available at this time is the Federally Insured Student Loan. There is even a program that loans money for education, "based on need", to the parents of college and university students at a slightly higher interest rate than students pay, though at a somewhat lower reate than a consumer loan.
This is NOT financial aid. This is a study now, pay later plan. The student loan debt is staggering and in some cases, it is paying for a hiatus between secondary school and a career.

Statistics notwithstanding, U.S. public and private school are producing more college students than any other school system in the world. Many of these students do not finish a degree program or, if they do finish, find themselves competing for the same jobs as high school graduates.
Colleges and universities often serve as finishing schools, giving students a bit more culture, a bit more general knowledge to take into the work a day world.
While this is a very proper use of higher education, as a tool for lifetime, continuing educatio, it should not serve as a substitute for work experience. If business wants to become involved and they should, it should be in an intern fashion. The business that will benefit from the education would be well served to help finance the education and offer paid work experience. This is a practical application of knowledge and offers realistic training.
This is just one aspect of higher education.

Has the college imperative been oversold?

Since this may be a "generational thing", I'll start by saying that I'm in my early 30s and grew up in an era in which college was "the" solution to everything: a happy life, a big paycheck, and satisfaction in career. Interestingly, it hasn't been as simple as that. I have therefore developed a new theory.

I believe, indeed, that college has been oversold and that, with time, the value of an associate's degree will equate (if not surpass, based on the practical nature of course design) that of a bachelor's degree in the general job market (excluding, of course, specialty markets such as law and medicine). I view an associate's degree as the route designed for the average American who wants to develop a career as quickly as possible after high school. College, on the other hand, is for those who plan to (one day) pursue a higher degree and for those who enjoy the social elements of a traditional four-year program.

To be honest, I envied those who attended technical schools. While I was attending lectures on history and theory (in huge lecture halls and with little discussion of practical value), my friends were attending small classes and practicing skills that they could immediately apply to their new careers. Simply put, college bored me. (That's probably why I graduated in three years, despite changing majors 5 times (from engineering to 2 different areas of medicine to to education to psychology). I was ready to move on.) I continued my academic pursuits to earn my doctorate and later became a member of Mensa, so my boredom was not the result of insufficient intelligence or dedication, but rather the result of a general disappointment in the applicability of the material that I was learning and in the theoretical emphasis of the institution. A four-year college experience was not fulfilling for me, but I completed it to conform to the expectation that "everyone goes to college".

I disagree that a "well-rounded" college education is required for most jobs and for most graduate programs, for that matter. I predict that associate degrees will, indeed, become more popular and desireable as four-year colleges are delayed in their attempts to match the new objectives and expectations imposed by the job market. I predict that the pendulum will swing back and colleges will again cater to the rich and intellectual while the job market will turn its attention to those who have demonstrated their skills and accomplishments in technical or associate degree programs. Contrary to the "college prep" philosophy, there is nothing wrong with a concentrated program focusing on the applicable nature of the content (like that of a technical/associate degree). Being on the hiring end of things this past year, I have begun to truly wonder what a college diploma really means. Coming from a person with a Ph.D., I find that interestingly ironic.

Before I close, however, I must also address Jerry's comments. I truly appreciate the theories and experiences presented there.

I work in an inner-city school where we, too, tout the importance of a college education as a ticket to a more "rich" life. For some, it is. I, however, feel trapped when students ask why they need to pay for four years of college when they want to repair computers for a living. As a technology teacher, I resolve the challenge by emphasizing the opportunities in technology that are unavailable to those who have less than a bachelor's degree (though finding examples is becoming more and more difficult).

I agree that more effort should be exerted to assist students in determining their goals and paths to those goals, rather than applying a panacea of college to all students. I teach my (technology) classes (at my college prep school) differently than any other teacher in my school. I teach in a way that emphasizes the practical skills a technologist requires: an ability to be self-sufficient in solving technical problems, an awareness of common softwares and their purposes, and the fundamental logic on which computer and computer systems are built (constantly using authentic examples/exercises that approximate skills they would be required to possess to successfully live and work with computers). I constantly focus on 4 key areas: knowledge, precision, creativity, and initiative - characteristics I have determined to be more important than high test scores. Interestingly, however, their reading and math skills have been improved as a result of the process, but that tidbit is just for those who are keeping track.

I think the total purpose of our academic structure deserves evaluation and innovative prgrams should be encouraged (and held accountable, rather than suffocated with fear of AYP and status quo doubt). Technical/2-year programs seem to have the closest match to the current needs of the job market. Perhaps there is something high schools and colleges can learn from that, rather than maintaining the insistence that four-year programs (in their current state) are always the best answer, regardless of the question or the person asking it.

A college degree has become the perceived standard prerequisite and will continue to be. In order to get a good job you must attend college, it is a common fact that people do not want to hire high school graduates and especially high school drop outs. I think attending college should be thought as a good thing, and furthering ones education should be promoted. High schools have equipped students the best they can, as the saying goes you can bring a horse to water, but you can not make them drink. You can prepare a student as much as you want, but if they don’t want it and take it seriously, they will not succeed. The people that I have seen drop out of college are the ones who are lazy with no priorities, they are the ones that show up to class four times a semester, and wonder why they are failing. People don’t realize how lucky they are to attend college, and when they fail out they are not only throwing away money, they are throwing away their future.

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