Monday, February 7, 2011

Education Roundtable: Who Shouldn't Go to College?

This is the first installment of what I hope to make a recurring series of education roundtables.

Corey: EdWeek just ran an article on a new report from some Harvard researchers.  In short, the report argues that we need to focus more energy on preparing students for careers that don’t require college diplomas.  As such, students should have more opportunities -- even as early as middle school -- to “chart an informed course toward work” (quote from edweek).  

Why?  “For too many of our youth, we have treated preparing for college versus preparing for a career as mutually exclusive options.”  By this logic, those most harmed by our “college or bust” (my quote) viewpoint are those who want to go into vocations with good wages (plumber, electrician, etc.) that don’t require diplomas.  In other words, why go to college when you get a steady, stimulating, and reasonably well-paying job without wasting time sitting in lecture halls.

To argue that some students would benefit from more vocational training is all well and good, but it seems like a slippery slope to me.  Yes, not everybody needs to go to college -- but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the point where too many students are going to college.  And until we reach the point where there are somewhere close to as many steady vocational jobs as there are adults without a college degree, I remain unconvinced that expending more time and effort on vocational training will benefit our students or our economy.  Until that point, this type of argument seems like a convenient way for some upper-class families to justify expecting less from others’ children than they do from their own.

TofuLover: I agree that there is a danger of reifying social stratification that comes along with this argument, but I don’t know how you can say we don’t have too many people going to college.  Why isn’t 40% more than enough?  Let us not confuse the racial/socioeconomic breakdown of that 40% with the overall value of the 40%.  Do I wish that 40% had many more children of color and children from low-income backgrounds?  Yes, but that doesn’t mean the number needs to get bigger, it means the proportions need to change.  

What is your argument for the value of college?  And what about the expense?  According to the Project on Student Debt, the average student graduated in 2009 with $24,000 in loans.  That’s an outrageous amount of money to repay, and for what advantage?  Where are your stats that there aren’t enough jobs for people without college degrees?  It seems to me that while the education industry has been convincing kids to take out larger and larger loans, many other industries have been quietly replacing highly-credentialed workers with cheaper ones with smaller pedigrees (medical assistants, who are not college educated, doing blood work instead of nurses, e.g.).

I learned amazing things in college, but I didn’t learn facts that would make me better at Jeopardy and I most certainly did not acquire any skills that made me more employable (the credential made me more employable, but not the skills).  I also learned invaluable lessons about citizenship, community, honesty, ethics, and how I wanted to create myself in the world and mold my world to suit my values.  While I wouldn’t trade these things or try to put a price tag on them, I am also confident that they all could have been accomplished by a really good high school.  

I also once had a plumber with an MBA from Wharton -- he got it and then went back to plumbing because he realized he could make more money, be his own boss, and do a service that few could argue isn’t absolutely crucial to our society’s function.  

The bell curve is shaped like a bell, kids.  This isn’t Lake Wobegone.  Some people are cut out for highly specialized careers that require college educations, and some people aren’t.  And we do a disservice to kids and our society when we beat them over the head with a) tasks that are really hard for them, often prohibitively so, 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, and b) the notion that they are bad people because school is hard for them.  Between teaching 2nd and 4th grades, I saw the light go out in so many children’s eyes because they were just confronted with things that were too hard for them, and that’s not right.  There should be legitimate, valued options for kids who don’t naturally excel at academics.  Education could and should lead the way in changing how society treats its most important members -- its plumbers, mechanics, farmers, trash collectors -- those without whom we (whose skill set amounts to being able to think for a living; let’s see how far that gets us in the post-peak-oil world) would be in serious trouble.

ClassroomView:  Corey, you lost me at the slippery slope.  I agree that we want to be careful about what kinds of skills we teach all children, because we don’t want to short circuit future opportunities.  However, I don’t think that shuttling me off the intramural basketball team in seventh grade was a bad thing, even though it effectively ended my hopes to get a scholarship to a great basketball school, like say, Kentucky.  I feel kind of cheated, I must admit, because I really could have been the next John Wall.  OK, maybe this is a stretch, but the thing is, it’s an apt analogy for a giant percentage of our kids who are continually browbeaten with “standards.”

As a currently practicing teacher who doesn’t work in a particularly failing school, I can say without reservation that our relentless focus on standards and college is one of the worst ideas to come out of our hapless nation that seems to be full of bad ideas these days.  You said it yourself with the term “College or Bust”: kids will make it to college, or they will have their souls crushed while trying.  But the crazy thing is, that’s not even the worst part of it.

The worst part of it is maybe they will get to college.  Let’s not forget that the major downside of everyone going to college is that its competitive value drops significantly.  How many of these kids get to a mediocre school, turn out mediocre grades, and then enter a work force chock full of other BAs who simply can’t find a job because our educational system expanded way too quickly under an educational industry bubble fueled almost exclusively by federally-backed loans?

I’m not going to cite any figures because I’m too lazy to look for them right now, but there is an entire generation of 20-somethings who can’t find work despite the our nation’s incessant boasting that “education is the key to a better future.”  Well here’s the thing: an education may very well be a prerequisite for a middle class living, but it is certainly no guarantee of one anymore; there are simply too many people with college degrees competing for a disappearing pool of jobs.

Which brings me to vocational education...of course we should have it...and a LOT of it.  There is an entire private industry of tech schools that train high school graduates (and college drop outs) to do useful things that can’t really be outsourced.  From air conditioning repair to medical technology, there are all sorts of jobs that graduates can do and earn a living at that require no college whatsoever.  My question is this: Why do we make people wait until after they’ve wasted years in high school to pursue these fields?  Wouldn’t it be a lot more honest, to say nothing of efficient, to allow these students to learn something useful in high school?  It would save them from debt later on (which I can personally attest, sucks) and it would keep them interested in learning during a pivotal of their lives that is now completely going down the tubes for large populations of our students.

Let’s not forget the end goal of K-12 education should be creating happy and productive citizens for our democracy.  Any path that gets five-year-olds to this point by their 18th birthdays is fine by me, and should be actively pursued.

Corey: In 1975, about 22% of 25-29 year-olds had a bachelor’s degree.  For the last decade, that number has hovered around 30%.  Hence, my lack of alarm at the skyrocketing population of young adults with useless bachelor’s degrees.

70% of adults do not possess a bachelor’s degree.  I’m neither a demographer nor a labor economist, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that this means two things: 1.) There are far more non-college-educated adults struggling to make ends meet than there are underemployed college grads staggering under a burden of debt; and 2.) There are nowhere near enough skilled jobs to employ everybody without a college degree; even if they all receive top-notch vocational training.

How many of those 70% should earn college degrees?  I don’t know.  But the reality is that we’re nowhere close -- and won’t be at any point in the near future -- to a population where 100% earn bachelor’s degrees.  Heck, at the current rate it will take us until about the end of the century to reach the point where the majority do.

Now, for the large number of students who enroll in college but never graduate (if over half of students enroll in college, and only 30% graduate, this is a pretty big number), we can certainly find some who would do better with vocational/technical training.  But this isn’t the only option: there are any number of ways in which we might help this population instead successfully graduate from college.  So, no, we shouldn’t dismiss vocational/technical training outright, but I think we should think long and hard before steering somebody away from college.

Part of this is because college attendance benefits people in numerous ways.  I don’t have time to look up all these statistics, but those with a bachelor’s degree are less than half as likely to be unemployed as those with a high school degree; earn substantially more money per year; are less likely to smoke; are more likely to vote, and the list could go on.  Some of this is correlational (more skilled people tend to go to college), but some portion is certainly what is learned and who one meets in college.  For these (and many other) reasons, I would encourage my child to to go to college regardless of which type of employment he/she wished to pursue.  And I think quite a few parents out there feel similarly.

To how many should this “college or bust” attitude be applied?  This is where we hit a slippery slope.  We’re not going to have 100% of students graduate from college, nor (probably) should we aim to.  So where do we draw the line?  This is where I worry that we start to hit a slippery slope.

I say that because we already know what happens when we track at any level: poor and minority students tend to end up in the bottom tracks while the wealthy and White (and Asian) students tend to find their way to the top tracks.  By encouraging those who may want to enroll in college, but are perceived as unlikely to graduate, to instead complete a vocational or technical education, we will probably save some students from being debt-ridden college dropouts.  But we’ll also prevent a number of students who otherwise would have finished college from doing so.  And these students will largely be poor and/or minority.

It seems to me that Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” applies here.  If you had no idea how successful your child would be in school, at what point would you object to them being placed in remedial English, the vocational track, or being advised not to attend college?  Would you be ok if this happened if they were in the 70th percentile?  I wouldn’t.  50th percentile?  I wouldn’t.  30th percentile?  I might start to consider it.

The practical ramification of the argument that we don’t need any more college grads and should, instead, focus on vocational education, is that 70% of parents should encourage their children to skip college.  

And I worry that it’s easy for those of us among the educated elite to pretend that would be acceptable.  We’re pretty sure our kids will end up among the top 30% (no matter how many times we have to go meet with the principal, how many hours we have to spend helping with homework, or how much we have to pay for private tutoring or a private school), so what do we have to worry about?  We have more friends from college who end up working as a secretary than we do friends who are unemployed, jailed, or working a series of low-wage jobs.  So, knowing that my child isn’t the one skipping college, I can sit here in the ivory tower and declare that too many people are enrolling in college and would be better off aiming lower.  And then I can take comfort in the fact that my child won’t have too much competition for the top positions in society.

TofuLover: I prefer not to think about some being “top” positions and rather to focus on the dignity in any kind of work.  I had a college classmate who dropped out to become an auto mechanic.  Do his parents love him less?  Is he less valuable to society than I am?  Hardly.  I also don’t think pushing to get more kids to the point where they can step on others is a goal to be proud of.  If the point of education is to “get ahead,” I have to ask, ahead of whom?  That’s the problem with this way of thinking about jobs and pay, someone always has to be at the bottom of the ladder in order for others to climb is.  I’m more interested in making this a society where we learn to respect and remunerate jobs based on their importance (an auto mechanic is considerably more useful to us than I will be with my PhD) and where we learn to appreciate the amazing bounty even the poorest of us has.  This takes my efforts outside of the educational arena, but not exclusively.

Corey's wrap-up: I think it's fair to say that there's no easy answer to the question of who should go to college and who shouldn't.  The "college or bust" attitudes of many parents often seem to benefit their children, but there's legitimate concern as to whether a society-wide "college or bust" attitude ends up hurting those who don't attend or graduate from college.  While those with college degrees lead lives that are empirically "better" in numerous ways (see the recent Economist article on the rising returns to a college diploma), it's unclear whether the goal of a college degree should be to "get ahead" of others.  Should the goal, instead, be simply to better oneself and one's life?

If that's the case, it seems likely that some would prefer the outcomes of pursuing a vocational or technical education than a bachelor's degree, but determining who should make that choice -- and when, is tricky, if not dangerous.  That will be part of next week's roundtable discussion.

1 comment:

Roger Sweeny said...

I say that because we already know what happens when we track at any level: poor and minority students tend to end up in the bottom tracks while the wealthy and White (and Asian) students tend to find their way to the top tracks.

Not really on point but it might make an interesting post: why do Asians get to be honorary Whites while Hispanics get to be honorary Blacks? (As in, you lump them together and treat them the same.)

America has a long history of anti-Asian discrimination: The Chinese Exclusion Acts, the pre-1965 immigration law. WW II had a lot of hatred for the slanty-eyed Japs. American citizens of Japanese ancestry were even put in concentration camps. Many people thought that the war in Vietnam reflected a certain racism (e.g., Phil Ochs' "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land").

And yet nobody respectable thinks Asians deserve specially good treatment. In fact, it is respectable to discriminate against them because, as a group, they do so well (e.g, just looking at academic potential would admit too many Asians to UC Berkeley).

Hispanics, however, are considered worthy of specially positive treatment, even though they have less of a discriminated-against history in the United States, and the category is so broad that it includes people who would never be discriminated against (Shakira?).