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Sorry, Your Reservation Has Been Cancelled


It’s funny how one thing leads to another. I’ve been questioning whether college preparation should be the primary goal of high schools, so Kevin Bushweller’s January 9 Motivation Matters blog: Comparing American, Chinese, and Indian Students, caught my attention when Kevin wrote

The economic benefits of being highly educated and having a "safe" career seem to be major motivators for the students in India and China, but not for the Americans.

And that led to Andrew Trotter’s article, Film Depicts China, India Besting U.S. in Schooling, about Two Million Minutes

… an independent documentary film. The documentary, conceived and financed by high-tech entrepreneur Robert A. Compton, suggests that the difference in the way students use their roughly “two million minutes” in high school will seriously affect their economic futures and that of the United States.

Notice that both of these quotes focus on a common theme: “economic benefits” and “economic future.” What these young people from China and India seem to grasp that American young people do not is that the specifics of their education, rather than the extent of their education, will be critical to earning a secure income. We are a nation accustomed to expansion and accustomed to being the economic powerhouse of our world, limited only by our imagination, ambition, and work ethic. But as the world shrinks, we are beginning to feel a little crowded.

Perhaps this outlook on the part of our young is predictable, when so many politicians and policy wonks seem to come up with the same simplistic answer to the "problem." In order to ensure our economic pre-eminence, we need a highly educated work force. And to secure that work force, we must make sure that no child is left behind, therefore every child should go to college. A college education has been promoted as the magic talisman of success, social standing and security. All they need is a degree!

Here’s the reality. While our high schools are “graded” on their success in preparing students for college entrance, most students who enter American high schools never go to college. Far too many never finish high school. They drop out because they need to work or because they don't need the frustration of being marked as failures at sixteen. Being accepted, especially to a “good” college, is a competitive process and for many of our young people winning this competition is what high school is all about. What they intend to learn after they get in college and what they intend to do with that knowledge is vague, but they seem sure that it will result in economic security.

Impossible dream? Maybe, but don't we want to set high expectations for all students? And what if we actually meet our goal? What if we really don't leave a single child behind in the quest for enrollment in a four-year college program? What if every high school student aspires to and achieves a perfect score on the SAT? Where will we find sufficient college placements for them? Who will pay for their post secondary education? And if we enrolled them all and they all graduated within six years, where will they find jobs? Because while there are a growing number of jobs that require a degree, and while those jobs do pay more, there are not enough of those jobs to go around.

College graduates are often disconcerted to discover that the world is not waiting breathlessly for their entrance into the job market. Their degree is not a ticket to a secure career; it is only admission to the competition for professional employment. Many of our college graduates are underemployed either because they lack specific job skills or there is no market for the skills they acquired in college. More college graduates will not fix the problem.

As a real-live teacher, I am touched by the honesty of Robert Compton, the orginator behind Two Million Minutes.

“I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to make policy recommendations. I’m just showing you the truth … about high school education.”

The truth is that as Americans we have grown accustomed to preferential seating at the economic table, but globalization has cancelled our standing reservation and economic isolationism is not an option. Nothing will turn back the clock. A college education is no longer a meal ticket because the table is crowded and the competition is now global and fierce.

So, if a college degree for everyone is not the answer, what other strategies might help secure the next generation a place at this increasing crowded table? Are there other ways to win?


I love the way you stretch our thinking on these issues. Perhaps one reason a college education is no longer a meal ticket is that was never its main purpose. A college education should open the doors of the mind to a world of broader knowledge and peoples. Why do we frame this discussion in such competitive, territorial terms? Fighting for a seat at the table---as if there can only be one table or as if the table can't be expanded. World-changing creativity in the economic realm has happened many times in human history, but there had to be those who were willing to see beyond what has always been.

I have been reading the entries in your blog about the necessity of college education, and I have to say that while I understand the possible crisis of what to do with all the potential college students (applications are now at a record high), and the crushing debt that may follow in the wake of that study (hey, I'm living it!), your ideas actually scare me...greatly.

There is an article in the New York Times which I think best explains my reservations:


They have a section where readers can post what they believe high school is for, and I'll read that shortly. But the article highlights the discomfort that I have with your basic premise.

College is not an instant meal ticket for a successful and comfortable middle class life. But what is does, and always should do, is offer choice. How do you know that you want to be a nurse, as opposed to an anthropoligist if you are not exposed to both? Many high schools, especially in the NYC region where I live, are disadvantaged. But even the smallest, most prestigious prviate high school cannot offer both the breadth and depth that college offers.

Also, what I liked about the article, was the fact that it highlighted the uncomfortable truth that certain populations in this country have historically been underrepresented in institutions of higher learning. And what I wonder is how would you suggest encouraging some students not to opt for higher learning, while strongly advocating others to do so. Maybe you wouldn't, but this is reminiscent of the "last hired, first fired" policies which are known to hurt people of color in greater measure.

In some ways, what you advocate is already taking place in New York City, albeit informally. I knew of one young woman who truly wanted to attend college, but was either ignored, or constantly under-estimated by her guidance counselor, who always asked why she even wanted to go to college. Low, and behold, she did not go.

But I worry about the poor and disadvantaged, and people of color who, unfortunately, occupy those groups in higher numbers. If you are not well connected, if you have no experience of having family members who own businesses, who can give you a taste of what you may enjoy, how else will you find out? I have met so many people whose eyes were opened, and whose passions were awakened when they attended college. And I think this is particularly true of people from lower incomes. College may not be a perfectly leveled playing field, but, at least for now, it is the best one we have. And I would rather see other things happen first (improving our primary and secondary eductaional systems, cutting the steeply rising college tuition fees, changing our societal attitudes towards people who don't have degrees), before I start advocating young adults not to go to college.

I am not dead set against brainstorming alternatives to higher learning. I just really hope that, maybe, in your future posts, you would address how to de-emphasize degrees, while not reversing the great strides we've made in getting the groups normally shut-out finally onto the undergrad and grad school track(s).

Thank You.

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