Should Everyone Go To College?

Well, I’m back. I was in Pittsburgh late last week for a memorial service for my Dad. And I spent the long holiday weekend doing not much more than running, eating and drinking — and taking advantage of the early summer hot and sunny weather here in NE Ohio.

So I’m back at it this early a.m.

And I noticed over the weekend some pundits opining in national forums on issues involving education. That good. Quality education is the driver for our informed democracy and for our economic prosperity in what really is now a global economy. But I’m slowly and somewhat reluctantly coming to the view that attending college isn’t for everyone.

One reason is that clearly not everyone is prepared for college based on their high school achievements. [Or lack thereof.] Here’s from an AP story:

Each year, an estimated 1.7 million U.S. college students are steered to remedial classes to help them catch up and prepare for regular coursework. But a growing body of research shows that the courses are eating up time and money, often leading not to degrees but to student-loan hangovers.

The expense of remedial courses, which typically cost students the same as regular classes but don’t fulfill degree requirements, run about $3 billion annually, according to new research by Complete College America, a Washington-based national nonprofit working to increase the number of students with a college degree.

The group says remedial classes are largely failing the nation’s higher-education system at a time when student-loan debt has become a presidential campaign issue. Meanwhile, lawmakers in at least two states have pushed through changes, and numerous institutions are redesigning the courses.

Clearly, the cost of getting a college education has become an important issue, one that will play out eventually during the fall elections. And it becomes an even bigger issue and concern if students go into debt while not obtaining a degree.

Related is the issue of whether everyone attending college is gaining the skills that employers are demanding these days. Getting a quality education just for the sake of being better educated should have value. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I’m a fan of the liberal arts. But it’s becoming tougher to justify if you are facing years of debt and no job, or one that may not require a college degree. [Assuming that you even graduate.] Here’s Robert Samuelson opining in WaPo, “It’s time to drop the college-for-all crusade“:

The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good. It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II, even though higher education’s expansion also ranks as one of America’s great postwar triumphs.

Consider. In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had a college degree. Going to college was “a privilege reserved for the brightest or the most affluent” high-school graduates, wrote Diane Ravitch in her history of U.S. education, “The Troubled Crusade.” No more. At last count, roughly 40 percent of Americans had some sort of college degree: about 30 percent a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution; the rest associate degrees from community colleges.

Starting with the GI Bill in 1944, governments at all levels promoted college. From 1947 to 1980, enrollments jumped from 2.3 million to 12.1 million. In the 1940s, private colleges and universities accounted for about half. By the 1980s, state schools — offering heavily subsidized tuitions — represented nearly four-fifths. Aside from a democratic impulse, the surge reflected “the shift in the occupational structure to professional, technical, clerical and managerial work,” noted Ravitch. The economy demanded higher skills; college led to better-paying jobs.

College became the ticket to the middle class, the be-all-and-end-all of K-12 education. If you didn’t go to college, you’d failed. Improving “access” — having more students go to college — drove public policy.

We overdid it. The obsessive faith in college has backfired.

For starters, we’ve dumbed down college. The easiest way to enroll and retain more students is to lower requirements. Even so, dropout rates are high; at four-year schools, fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate within six years. Many others aren’t learning much.

In a recent book, “Academically Adrift,” sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that 45 percent of college students hadn’t significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years, the proportion was still 36 percent. Their study was based on a test taken by 2,400 students at 24 schools requiring them to synthesize and evaluate a block of facts. The authors blame the poor results on lax academic standards. Surveyed, one-third of the same students said that they studied alone five or fewer hours a week; half said they had no course the prior semester requiring 20 pages of writing.

Still, most of these students finished college, though many are debt-ridden. Persistence counts. The larger — and overlooked — consequence of the college obsession is to undermine high schools. The primacy of the college-prep track marginalizes millions of students for whom it’s disconnected from “real life” and unrelated to their needs. School bores and bothers them. Teaching them is hard, because they’re not motivated. But they also make teaching the rest harder. Their disaffection and periodic disruptions drain teachers’ time and energy. The climate for learning is poisoned.

That’s why college-for-all has been a major blunder. One size doesn’t fit all, as sociologist James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University has argued. The need is to motivate the unmotivated. One way is to forge closer ties between high school and jobs. Yet, vocational education is de-emphasized and disparaged. Apprenticeship programs combining classroom and on-the-job training — programs successful in Europe — are sparse. In 2008, about 480,000 workers were apprentices, or 0.3 percent of the U.S. labor force, reports economist Robert Lermanof American University. Though not for everyone, more apprenticeships could help some students.

The rap against employment-oriented schooling is that it traps the poor and minorities in low-paying, dead-end jobs. Actually, an unrealistic expectation of college often traps them into low-paying, dead-end jobs — or no job. Learning styles differ. “Apprenticeship in other countries does a better job of engaging students,” says Lerman. “We want to diversify the routes to rewarding careers.” Downplaying these programs denies some students the pride and self-confidence of mastering difficult technical skills, while also fostering labor shortages.

There are plenty of reformers out there these days with ideas about improving education. In fact, that has kinda become a growth industry since the business community jumped into the education game in the early 1980s with the idea that you could run a school as you would a profit center or a division of a larger business. Not.

So perhaps the time has come to question whether college is right for everyone.

 

 

2 responses to “Should Everyone Go To College?

  1. This reminds me of the problematic nature of Troy’s character on Community…having lost his football scholarship and somewhat lackadaisical about his liberal arts classes, he is being recruited by the “Air Conditioning and Heating Repair” Vice Dean whose program actually funds the entire college. My uncle, a wealthy owner of a plumbing business, says he can find no one to hand his business off to, no one who even wants to take over the business though it is very lucrative – because no one wants to be known as ‘just a plumber/contractor’ etc. It’s a shame that we’ve devalued these kinds of jobs, because they are steady, always necessary, and pay well.

    • Jeannine, thanks for your comment. And your story points to the problem. There are many jobs — according to employers and groups working on this issue — that today go unfilled because their is a mismatch between the skills potential employees have and the skills employers need and want. In many cases those are technical skills — and those that have them appear are in demand.

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