Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Should Everyone Attend College?

In a previous post, I disagreed with Kevin Carey. This time, I'd like to defend him. A recent article in The Atlantic (which I haven't read since I don't have a subscription, don't feel like sitting in Barnes & Noble, and it isn't online) described the life of an adjunct professor who teaches adult ed classes in the evenings and finds that most students don't have the skills to complete college coursework. Apparently the point of the article is that college isn't for everyone.

Kevin Carey writes

One thing's for certain: this piece will be catnip for those who like to adopt the contrarian too-many-people-are-going-to-college-these-days position. This is an especially attractive stance for elitists and/or people who spend a lot of time searching for opportunities to loudly begin sentences with some variation of the phrase "I know it's not politically correct to say this, but..." as if this denotes intellectual bravery of some kind.

he continues on to argue that perhaps it would be more beneficial to put more effort into these programs rather than loudly complain that these students don't belong in college.

Liam Julian, on the Fordham Institute's blog, apparently disagrees. He criticizes Carey for "impugning motives" and "name-calling" and then goes on to mock ("The blatant rejection of reality inherent in Carey’s sentences is astounding") his position. I have an avowed dislike for unproductive, thoughtless, side-taking blog posts and while both posts touch on this territory, Carey's (with the exception of the above paragraph) is much more thoughtful and much less accusatory.

Anyway, Julian continues on to write that college isn't for everybody, that it's not supposed to teach remedial skills, and that pushing underqualified students into college will accomplish nothing other than cheapening college degrees.

I have a number of problems with these arguments:

1. It's easy for us folks with college degrees to sit at our computers and say that not everyone belongs in college, but self-interest precludes any sort of impartial judgment on this matter. If fewer people graduate from college then my degree looks that much better (and vice-versa).

2. I'm not sure that Carey ever made the argument that colleges should teach remedial skills to underqualified students. The fact that students graduate from high school unable to read or write at a college level doesn't mean they shouldn't go to college, it means that they should have learned more while they were in their previous schools. Since it's too late for them to learn more in elementary, middle, and high school then it's entirely appropriate for them to enroll in some sort of classes that will adequately prepare them for college. If colleges choose to make promises they can't keep in order to make money off these classes, then shame on them.

3. Despite the fact that I've previously informed him he was incorrect about this, Julian still assumes that the number of people graduating from college is skyrocketing at an alarming rate. If one looks at the statistics (look at the second category, third column) it becomes readily apparent that this isn't the case. The percentage of 25-29 year-olds with at least a bachelor's degree has remained virtually flat over the past decade. Below is a list of this figure for each of the past 10 years for which data are available.

1997: 27.8%
1998: 27.3%
1999: 28.2%
2000: 29.1%
2001: 28.6%
2002: 29.3%
2003: 28.4%
2004: 28.7%
2005: 28.6%
2006: 28.4%

4. Even if we assumed that this figure was on the verge of increasing rapidly, exactly what would that harm? Let's say that 50% of the population gets a bachelor's degree and the percentage of people with a graduate degree also doubles. Other than the amount of student loan debt that the population has, I fail to see how this is a bad thing. In 1910, 13.5% of the population had a high school diploma. The figure now stands at 85.5%. Has this ramp-up in educational attainment had some sort of detrimental effect on our society? If so, what?

5. Julian assumes that anybody who thinks more students should attend college thinks that everybody should go to college. It's quite apparent that this is a willful exaggeration. We are so far from a 100% college graduation rate (heck, most high schools graduate significantly less than 100% of their students) that it's a completely unrealistic goal even for the most optimistic pundit. Arguing that more students should be able to enroll in college and arguing that everybody should enroll in college are not one and the same. I, for example, think more people should enroll in college; but I don't think everybody should. In other words, it is possible to have a somewhat nuanced position on the issue.

Update: The article is now online here. After reading it, I posted some more thoughts on the article here.


Mike Reibel said...

It may well be true that the proportion of those over 25 with a college degree has remained flat for a decade. If that is the case, it means far more people are going to college and never graduating. How is that a good thing?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Who says more people are enrolling in college?

Anonymous said...

No everyone should not attend college. This guy makes a pretty good argument as to why not: http://higher-ed-reform.blogspot.com/2009/09/some-problems.html

I'd add also that there are practice reasons... everyone going to college drives up prices and competition unnecessarily.