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Reforms Collide with Reality: College is an Illusion for Most


My late father, Fred Cody, (pictured at right, milking the family cow) was born more than 90 years ago in Scott’s Run, West Virginia, a coal hollow in Monongalia County. His mother, a high school graduate, taught school there in a one room schoolhouse. Following his service in World War II, he was able to complete his PhD at the University of London thanks to the GI Bill. He would never have had that chance were it not for the generosity and foresight of the taxpayers.


As a result, I have a great affection for the GI Bill. This law is credited with expanding the middle class in the US, and it certainly helped my family – so the idea of expanding the ranks of those able to attend college is very important to me.

That said, I have been struggling recently to sort out the rhetoric from the reality in the education “reform” movement. According to many of our leaders, all students must be prepared to enroll in a four-year college because all students should attend and graduate college. That will in turn result in the highly educated workforce the US needs for the 21st century.

Many public school reform efforts today are guided by this big idea. In California the Governor has led us to enact a mandate that all 8th graders take Algebra, and many districts across the state are working to match high school graduation requirements to the University of California’s “A to G requirements.”

There is certainly a civil rights issue involved in access to higher education. Students of color, and those raised in poverty have numerous unfair disadvantages, including the quality of their schools. We should do everything we can to strengthen their schools and build the effectiveness of their teachers. We should work to close the achievement gap, and provide opportunities for as many students as possible to attend college.

But is it reasonable to propose that everyone will or should go to college? The reality of our economic straits has begun to cast the shadow of doubt on this vision. I have some basic questions for those who are pushing the system to prepare all students for college.

Currently about 25% of the adults in the US are college graduates. Statistics regarding the economic advantage conferred by a college degree are based on that proportion. What would be the effect on wages of college graduates if that number were to increase substantially? The middle class in the US is shrinking in the current economy, and a college degree in the future may not be as precious as it has been in the past. There do not seem to be enough jobs for the graduates currently emerging from college -- will those jobs expand if the number of college graduates expands? Or will wages simply drop?

We ARE increasing the number of students eligible for college. This week an article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the number of students eligible for public universities has expanded by 11 percent – with Latinos showing the largest increase. Now 33% of California's high school graduates are eligible. But have we addressed the other systemic barriers to them actually successfully completing their studies? The state’s budget mess means the universities will be DECREASING the number of slots available for new students by ten thousand.

As the slots diminish in proportion to applicants, the colleges simply raise the bar for admission – so our schools and students are pursuing a moving – and shrinking – target. And the overall economic picture means that fewer families will have the resources to send their children to college. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes the tough choices facing families (including my own) as college tuitions increase, and state subsidies and college endowments shrink. The New York Times reported just ten days ago that:

Among the poorest families — those with incomes in the lowest 20 percent — the net cost of a year at a public university was 55 percent of median income, up from 39 percent in 1999-2000. At community colleges, long seen as a safety net, that cost was 49 percent of the poorest families’ median income last year, up from 40 percent in 1999-2000.

Does it make sense for these students that we are molding their entire K-12 experience around an opportunity that may be an illusion?

This seems like a fraud.

We have a very tricky dilemma. We want our schools to prepare as many students as possible for the most advantageous opportunities, but we also want to prepare them for the actual future they will be facing. It seems to me that our exclusive emphasis on college preparation does a disservice to the many students who will not be on that path. It also points to the trouble with treating K-12 schools as if they are a stand-alone fix for society’s ills. Unless we connect a solid K-12 education to genuine opportunities in our students' futures, we are not going to accomplish much, and we may actually harm those we are trying to help.

I do not have all the answers here. One of the scary things about the discussion around these issues is that sometimes people behave as if they DO have all the answers, and dismiss the very real qualms being raised. So I end this post with a request for real dialogue.

Should a K-12 education be designed around preparing everyone for college? Should we raise our high school graduation requirements to match the university admission requirements? How will this serve the two thirds of our students who do not go on to college?


Anthony -

First of all, what a great picture to have of your dad! On the main issue, I see your points, and like you, won't claim to have the answers.

However, one argument I'll add in favor of aligning graduation and college requirements is that I see some logic in thinking of our educational system as a cohesive K-16 system rather than K-12. Even if most students don't go on to college, there's some appeal in being able to say that a high school diploma means that the graduate is prepared for the next level. The choices that follow may be another matter.

But if the legislature is not prepared to expand and protect enrollment in public universities, then, yes, it seems like a shell game to raise the stakes for students and not offer the benefits of success.

Having more college-ready graduates also increases pressure to fund high schools at levels that will support increased enrollment in required courses. Consequences? More demand for teachers could also add healthy pressure to pay more, recruit better, and improve retention. On the other hand, we've gotten most of that wrong in the past, so does increased pressure really help? If we don't have high quality teachers to fill those positions, have we really improved high schools?

But I still haven't hit the heart of your argument, so I can hear you asking, what about students who don't plan to go to college, or who come up short of the requirements? Is there nothing for them? If a high school diploma has historically represented a certain level of achievement, skills, and preparation for work and life, then are we ready to throw that aside and say that only college preparedness meets those criteria? I don't know. What about having multiple types of diplomas? Is that just an invitation to maintain current inequities, by giving lower achieving students a lower target to aim for?

No easy answers here.

As usual, Anthony, you have presented a great commentary about the issues facing our public schools today. I'm very torn on this issue myself. While I agree that all students should be prepared (if they so choose) to enter college upon high school graduation, I also see that other pathways (e.g., trade schools and the military) are currently deemed as "less than" rather than a real alternative for career cultivation. We must find that careful balance so that all students -- regardless of their pathway -- feel value and opportunity for success.

David raises a potent question. How do we determine the appropriate level of achievement for our students? To me the answer comes back to our democratic principles. At their heart, schools are community-based institutions. That being the case, why don’t we empower the communities where our schools are embedded to guide these decisions? The parents, community leaders and students themselves should be a part of setting the challenges for the schools and students. These decisions could be made based on the aspirations of the students and their families, and the needs and economic conditions of the community. I do not see the state and national mandates serving our students and communities well.

David does bring up an important point, Anthony, and your response--that communities should determine the ultimate educational goals--more than undermines your over-arching argument. When New American Media surveyed Latino, African-American, and Asian families living in California, parents overwhelmingly said the expected (not hoped, but expected) their children to earn a post-secondary degree. The very stakeholders I can only imagine you expect to not choose college for their kids clearly recognize diplomas as the gate-keeper to the middle-class and clearly want more than what educators offer. This is not an agenda owned by the reform movement (no need for snide quotations around the word).

The same with the move to align high school graduation requirements with college entrance requirements (A-G), which is happening nationwide as part of the American Diplomas Project. See here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUX_b_2oavw) for what happened in LAUSD, where children were literally screaming in the street for the opportunity to take college prep classes. They share your sentiment: "Let us choose our future" read the signs they carried.

My grandfather milked cows, my father too, and although the eldest male in our family had remained in rural Minnesota to continue milking cows for six generations, my dad was educated with the skills to seek college. It was the default curriculum in his high school, as it should be the default curriculum everywhere. Those mythical low-education-high-wage careers are a thing of the past. The current financial situation should only underscore that fact. Ready for college and ready for work no longer mean two different things, and it is beyond illogical to continue to prepare students with unequal skill sets for an interconnected, global economy that will certainly regard and reward those skill sets unequally.

I'm all for providing choice, and I'm all for localizing that choice in kids and community, but the choice must come AFTER kids have completed a default college prep curriculum (read: life prep), not BEFORE they have a chance to do so. The real fraud is limiting opportunity in the name of expanding opportunity. The kids want it, their parents want it, and it is beyond sad that their teachers would attempt to give them anything less.

Here is the problem I have with your argument. You have cast K-12 educators as the gatekeepers in this situation. As I did my best to explain, I am certainly committed to offering the students I work with the very best opportunities I can, and work with my school district to systematically improve what we offer. I acknowledge that there are systemic issues of inequity that must be addressed -- including the lack of access to college prep courses -- and I am NOT suggesting we should be satisfied with the status quo (see last week’s blog entry below.) However, simply asserting that everyone wants their children to attend college, and suggesting that K-12 schools are the primary obstacle to that simply doesn’t wash.

There is a finite and shrinking number of slots for college students. Beyond that, there is a finite and shrinking number of middle class jobs available for college graduates. You are absolutely correct that there are not adequate jobs at decent wages available for people who have not graduated from college. I just do not see that graduating everyone from college magically cures the economic conditions that are responsible for this problem. Therefore preparing all of our students for college does not fix things either, especially when most of them lack the resources to attend, and colleges lack the space to admit them!

So I am still left struggling to understand how all the steps we take (8th grade Algebra, for example) that are designed to prepare 100% of our students for college actually benefit the two thirds of our high school graduates who do NOT make it to college. I feel that we run the risk of boosting the dropout rate by making high school an all-or-nothing college preparation system.

Raise expectations and the kids will fail? As for more and the kids will drop-out? Let's not let myths such as these fester into facts.

I'll point you once again to the successes of San Jose Unified. They defy your drop-out myth resoundingly. SJUSD is the only district in California that requires completion of the A-G coursework as their graduation requirement--in other words, the only district that does what we're talking about.

Have kids dropped-out in droves? No. Since this all went down in 98, graduation rates have risen by 2 percentage points, above state, district, and county averages. In fact, drop-out rates for Latino and Black kids are lower in SJUSD than any of the other 15 largest urban school districts. And A-G completion rates for Latino and Blacks in SJUSD is more than twice what it is in California as a whole.

Regardless of how you cut it, and regardless of how much you want to make this about kids, you're arguing for fewer educational opportunities to be made available to fewer kids, and I just can't get on board with that. The data do not support your arguments, and the idea that we will need fewer highly educated individuals in the knowledge and innovation driven economy of the 21st century seems a little silly.

First of all, it IS about kids. Let's assume we are both coming from a genuine desire to maximize their potentials.

Here is what I object to in this debate. If I raise what I consider to be sincere concerns about the fate of students who might be left behind by the push to mandate Algebra in the 8th grade, or to make a high school diploma fulfill A to G requirements, I have become an enemy of college preparation, guilty of "low expectations." I am not. I believe, as I stated in my original post, that we should prepare as many students as possible for college, and make college prep courses available to as many as are able to take them.

You suggest that these changes will not affect the drop-out rate. If there is data that support that, great. I am open to being convinced.

However you have not responded to the data that I provided that suggests that the number of openings for eligible students in our colleges is actually shrinking, and that college is financially out of reach for many. I do not hear businesses complaining that there are not enough college graduates available for their companies, except in a very few highly specialized fields. If anything, there seem to be a great many underemployed college graduates on the job market.

These underlying economic and structural problems call into question the promise of college-for-all.

I understand your concern that we may be setting some students up for failure by aiming everyone's education towards 4 year degree, but I want to look at the problem from a slightly different perspective.

First, the graduation rates at many colleges are far worse than those of most secondary schools. Colleges, in general, have been slow to identify with any consistency, what it takes to be a "successful" college student, so K-12 systems have not had a realistic goal. Preparing every child for college would have more meaning if the colleges themselves were clear on what that readiness means. Truth be told, there's plenty of room for more students in most college programs, even in these challenging times, but most of the students are stagnated at the bottom. The fastest growing programs/deparments on most college campuses today are the remedial or developmental programs, from which few emerge successfully to complete degrees.

Second, the higher ed community is just beginning to hear and learn what K-12 has dealt with for many years: accountability for student performance. The reason some college graduates are unemployed or underemployed has more to do with their lack of real-world usable knowledge and skills; or poor advising while they were in college.

College is being priced out of the reach of many students. But equally tragic are the thousands who do get in to college, have the money, at least initially to pay for it, but spend a year or more in remediation, then quit; never to pursue a degree.


Part of me would very much like to agree with what your assertion that we're-all-in-it-for-the-kids, etc., and that's true for you I'm sure and maybe many like you. But it's not true for everyone, and certainly not true for all the folks who push policies that either explicitly or implicitly result in or engender a culture of low expectations and resulting low achievement -- a kind of bigotry that is anything but soft. You're lined up with those folks here.

As for college capacity and the resulting capacity of the market, I'd echo Renee's comments above, and then point you to the Public Policy Institute of California's most recent report on California's workforce, as well as the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education's most recent work on the state of state's colleges.

In the final analysis, I think giving kids more options is better than giving them fewer. I think demanding more is always superior to demanding less. I think the kid who recieves a college preparatory education but does not attend college --either by chance or choice -- is far less tragic than the kid who is graduated with an elementary skill-set that readies them for nothing. I think access to middle-class and a living wage is almost exclusively the domain of undergrad degree holding folks, a condition that is likeley to become more universal in the future, not less.

Please do take the last word.

As the mother of a 2007 college graduate (magna cum laude) who is now tending bar in Scottsdale, Arizona--and pondering whether it is worth going into debt to pursue a graduate degree--I'd like to second Anthony's point: College for All is a deceptive talking point for the "reform" movement (note appropriate re-adjustment of parentheses). It's part of a gospel whose central tenet is that our lousy schools have ruined the economy.

If you've been reading the newspapers lately, you know that no such thing is true. It's true that the economy is in tatters, but it isn't because we don't have enough college graduates. There are lots of critical reasons to improve our schools and offer better opportunities to our neediest students, but promising them better jobs and entrance into a higher tier of social advancement is false advertising. Kids--poor kids and rich kids--should go to college to become better educated and thus more likely to generate some old-fashioned American ingenuity--a better-educated society is a benefit to all of us, not an automatic ticket to the individual good life.

I am also heartily sick of being accused of having low expectations for students in poverty--of being the reason that they do not succeed when they get to college. Renee is right--colleges and universities are still expecting the same kinds of students they were receiving in the 1960s, when college was reserved for scholars and credentialing for the upper middle class, and academic lesser lights got good jobs in the factories. Have we seen new models of teaching and learning in our universities to help first-generation college students adapt to residential academic life? Colleges benefit when entering students need what is considered remedial coursework. There's a reason why the phrase "five year plan" has entered the lexicon.

There's plenty of research on where the technical jobs are going--to India and China--and why: corporations can pay a small fraction of the wages they would need to pay a similarly trained American worker. And of course, our workers want outrageous things like health care and retirement benefits. So--let's blame the schools.

And--this *is* about the kids. I frankly cannot imagine anyone remaining in teaching over the long haul, continuously analyzing and improving their practice, unless it was precisely "about the kids." Teaching is complex and important work--to assert that teachers are not committed to their students' learning, and thus prevent them from life opportunities, is not only wrong but counterproductive. Further, a commitment to a better-educated, 21st century workforce needs to go much further than "College for All." If all we're doing is raising test scores (read: more of the same), we are totally missing the opportunity to re-invent post-secondary education in a conceptual economy.

Nancy's last point seems to be an otherwise overlooked part of this good and lively debate. I was just reading from a new report by College Summit (endorsed by quite a range of policy wonks) that focuses on recreating high-poverty high school cultures to make college-going a norm.


Nancy's issues emerge around this report as well. Unless the high school experience becomes more engaging, meaningful and *effective* for students entering a 21st century workforce, their particular destination (four-year, two-year, trades, bartending school) is not going to matter all that much. One of the best reports I've seen on this subject was published last spring by SREB -- one of the few sources of advocacy for high school programs that are both academically rigorous and highly engaging, and that (heaven forbid) draw on the best of academics and tech/voc to create project- and problem-based learning opportunities for ALL high school students -- opportunities that are anchored in the real world. It's at:


The report is authored by McGraw Prize winner Gene Bottoms, whose understanding of the dropout problem is rooted in 20 years of research through SREB's High Schools That Work program. Bottoms has been warning us for a long time not to be seduced by the gold leaf and thick parchment of a four-year degree. It's only one route to skills, knowledge and success, and as Renee notes, often not the best-prepared route, at that.

Thanks for providing with greater clarity than I have an example of school change connected to the realities that our students and teachers face. I do not think we should set low expectations for our students, but I think our expectations -- and our actual course offerings -- should be directly connected to where our students have come from, where they are now, and where they could reasonably advance to in the future. You have given us some excellent examples of what that actually looks like.

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