Public Agenda and the Urban Institute sponsored an interesting panel last week on the “School of Hard Shocks.” In listening to the debate, I found both sides made excellent points on whether college for all is the right approach.
On one hand, we are sending many students to college who do not finish. (Later this week, I am going to write about a new book that suggests part of that problem is that many low-income students with high potential are going to colleges that are too easy for them and that don’t move students along to graduation.)
On the other hand, what kind of future is there today for an 18-year-old without a college degree? Are the alternative programs effective in giving kids the lifetime job skills they need?
“As a nation, we prided ourselves in expanding the opportunity to attend college and have held out a college degree, usually a bachelor’s degree, as an appropriate goal for everyone,” said Urban Institute president Robert D. Reischauer, former head of the Congressional Budget Office.
“We haven’t asked many of the more difficult questions, such as should everyone go to college,” said Reischauer. “Are there other training opportunities that might be better for some, better for society and less costly for the individuals and society? We are very good at enrolling students, but how good are we at graduating them?”
Both the Bush and the Obama White Houses have pushed more Americans to attend college, citing the urgency of economic restructuring, job creation and global competitiveness.
“We have seen there is a rising sense that you can’t make it unless you go to college … that it is the only thing,’’ said Public Agenda executive vice president Jean Johnson.
And that hurts the many young people for whom college is not a good fit, said panelist Robert Lerman, an Urban Institute fellow and an American University economics professor.
“We have evolved into this highly academic-based system for all students,” said Lerman. “We only have a modest number of alternative routes.”
I have visited some technical colleges and seen great programs teaching kids valuable and sought-after skills, such as auto mechanics and bio-medicine. But when you look at vo-tech course catalogs, you also see a lot of child care and elder care classes and I am not sure those certificates will lead to careers that will pay enough to support a family.
Do we have the sophisticated apprenticeship programs that ready kids for good careers like those in Germany and Switzerland? And does a child of 15 or 16 know enough about life to choose either a college or apprenticeship route, as students in those countries? (Actually, in some countries, the sorting is done for you by means of your tests scores. The schools tell you whether you are college material or not.)
Our open system is credited with leveling the playing field, with making college available for all rather than only the elite. Indeed, the G.I.Bill sent a generation of working class students to college, creating the world’s best educated workforce in the latter part of the 20th century.
And most of the new jobs created in the last 30 years in this country have required come college. The evidence suggests that future jobs will also require some college.
So what is the right path for today’s students?