Higher education is expensive. The cost is especially high for people who attend for a while, then drop out. They incur the costs but not the benefits, and it’s got to be demoralizing, too.
Not everyone should go to college. Certainly, not everyone should go to college at age 18. I believe this.
Still, it makes me angry to hear people say it.
This truth is used to justify bad educational policy choices. My family just went through high school admissions here in Chicago, and I’d often hear that I should overlook average scores at certain schools because, well, not everyone should go to college! In school reform efforts, it seems that some people don’t want to make high school rigorous or hold everyone to high standards because, after all, not everyone should go to college!
But what should we do with all those people who don’t go to college, or who don’t go right away? Have them join street gangs or work at fast-food restaurants? Drift between low-wage, no-benefit gigs?
College has become important for getting a good job because high school has become less important. There is no assurance that a high-school graduate can do basic math, read an instruction manual, write a memo, or do any critical thinking.
There’s no assurance that a two-year or four-year college graduate can do these things, either, but the likelihood is a lot greater. That’s why employers want college graduates for jobs that do not otherwise require a college education.
Yes, I know: more people should go into the building trades. These are great jobs that don’t require college! And they are. But how many more people are needed in the building trades, and in what parts of the country? I don’t think Detroit needs a lot of carpenters these days. Also, construction apprenticeship programs don’t take all comers; successful applicants have to demonstrate basic math, reading, and critical thinking skills. They need a good high-school education.
In the olden days, high schools offered vocational and career tracks along with college prep. At the best schools, graduates of the alternative tracks came away with skills they could use on the job. Unfortunately, too many schools put white males on the college prep track and everyone else on a non-academic path. Even worse, they watered down the non-academic curriculum in response to different budget cuts. Eventually, most schools eliminated vocational education. Meanwhile, a college degree has become the key to a job that pays a living wage and offers some kind of health insurance and retirement plan. The Center for Economic and Policy Research just published a report showing that the number of these jobs has declined throughout the economy, but the decline has been sharpest for people without a college degree.
People want good jobs, and that’s why they want to go to college. As long as that’s the case, then high schools need to prepare people for higher education (whether they enroll at 18 or at 30). The question of what kind of economy we want to have, and what kind of access to benefits we need, is much broader than I can tackle here. But we need to tackle it, and we need to prepare students for the jobs that are out there. It is wrong to brush off so many people by saying, “Well, not everyone should go to college!”