The Times had an interesting little article in yesterday's Week in Review section entitled "Plan B: Skip College". The article runs through a quick list of scholars advocating alternatives to 4 year colleges for high school students, and then mostly focuses on a couple economists advocating vocational training as a substitute for college. It calls "urging that some students be directed away from four-year colleges" a "third rail of the education system."
In some ways, the article is all well and good. Yes, not everybody needs to go to college. Yes, it can be dangerous to say this. Yes, college is expensive. Yes, lots of students begin college and don't finish. And, yes, vocational training in high schools is fading fast -- to some extent in response to the increased academic focus of the NCLB era.
But I always have the same two problems when I hear these arguments:
1.) College does not only exist to train students for future employment. Students might benefit from attending college in myriad ways regardless of whether or not it directly relates to their future career. Similarly, society may benefit in many ways other than a more skilled labor force if more people attend college. The article quotes one economist as asking "why 15 percent of mail carriers have bachelor’s degrees" when “some of them could have bought a house for what they spent on their education”. Some of the mail carriers may regret going to college, but I'll bet many don't -- and democracy is dependent on an more educated populace.
2.) Who, exactly, shouldn't attend college? It's all well and good to argue that many just won't cut it in -- and/or won't really benefit from -- college, but who doesn't go, and who gets to decide? Almost all upper and upper-middle class parents will accept nothing less than attendance at a 4 year institution from their children, so I don't think that the "skip college" movement is going anywhere with that crowd -- those kids will continue to attend college whether economists like it or not. Which leaves us with kids from middle, working, and lower class families. Should we really have different expectations for these kids? The reality of the situation says that maybe we should, but I'm not sure I can find any good justification for channeling these kids, and pretty much only these kids, into less scholarly programs once they reach high school and beyond. In this sense, the argument of one scholar to "get them some intervening credentials, some intervening milestones. Then, if they want to go further in their education, they can" may be a good compromise between what is morally imperative and what is practically feasible.
Given that less than a third of Americans aged 25-29 hold bachelor's degrees, there's certainly a need to both study and improve other avenues to education and career training. But let's not lose sight of these two problems when we discuss possible solutions.