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.
1) Regarding your point one, I'm not sure that is strictly true anymore. Outside of the academy, few consider getting a degree as anything OTHER than preparation for employment. Most would argue that even in fields where the training is not strictly occupational, the process is training for sitting at a desk 8 hours a day and solving certain types of problems. Other than the upper classes, few people have the luxury to go to school strictly for their own betterment anymore.
2) I don't believe that anyone is advocating tracking students either to or away from college any more than already happens. I see this current movement as an attempt to make the alternative (not going to college and choosing a vocational path) more acceptable to both students and parents. Right now students are fed the "you must go to college to make a good living" line from an early age, and most have a hard time resisting that message. In fact, the average mason, carpet installer, electrician or plumber makes the same or more than the average teacher, who had to get a bachelors degree and often needs a masters (see the 2006 BLS report).
The point is that I don't see this effort as a way of rationing higher education so much as a way of changing the message. Not telling people they can't so much as telling them that they don't HAVE to go to college in order to have a successful life. We know that college isn't a guarantee; there are lots of people who finished college and are making a sub-middle-class wage. There are far more who start and don't finish, ending up in debt without the advantages. Wouldn't it be better to help those folks realize that they don't HAVE to go this route before they start and focusing on helping those whose goals actually align with and require college to succeed?
Now...about credential inflation... :-)
I think you make some good points, but I'd add the following:
1.) I agree that few people go to college strictly for their own betterment as a human being, but I'm not convinced that "few consider getting a degree as anything OTHER than preparation for employment". If that were the case, why would so many students arrive at school undecided on a major? And, for that matter, why would so many students major in Classics, English, and other subjects without plentiful high-paying jobs directly related to the skills they gain?
2.) I don't know exactly what anybody is advocating, but my reading of the article is that some people think we'd be better off if college students who end up dropping out or taking certain jobs later on did some sort of vocational training instead. That argument isn't baseless, but it certainly involves tracking students away from college more than already happens. I agree that there are people who would gain more from vocational training than from college, but I take issue with the way you present it. To say that a certain few jobs that don't require college degrees pay more than a certain few that do is to argue in exceptions rather than rules. The average person without a four-year degree makes far less than the average person with one, and no cutesy argument about plumbers and carpet installers is going to change that.
While I don't doubt that we could benefit from a better vocational system, I think we have to be very careful how we frame the problem and solution and who we encourage to attend such a system.
I agree that students should be given options other than "college or bust." As a former teacher, I worked in a school with students with mild to moderate learning and emotional disabilities. There were students who were obviously not going to succeed in college, yet the school continued to force them to take Algebra II (over and over) rather than allowing them to simply focus on basic life skills and/or technical skills that they could actually master and perform well.
Of course, this is a separate issue from students who are intellectually ready for college but who choose to follow another career path. In those cases, it's a closer call, in my opinion. as to whether they should be encouraged to attend college vs. pursuing other avenues. As you pointed out, it's generally advantageous to have a college degree, but, as Rebecca noted, there are several exceptions to the general rule.
why would so many students arrive at school undecided on a major? And, for that matter, why would so many students major in Classics, English, and other subjects without plentiful high-paying jobs directly related to the skills they gain?
Why do they arrive undecided? Because they're 18 years old and don't know much about the world or what they really want to do.
They have been led to believe that a college degree, any degree, is the necessary and sufficient condition for a good, well-paying job. And colleges do very little to make them think differently.
I have never heard of an advisor saying, "You could be an English major, but there are very few employers out there looking for English majors. You'll learn very little in the major that will have a direct effect on getting the kind of jobs you want." Instead, advisors often verge on fraud, "The skills you get in the English major--close reading, facile writing--will be useful in a wide variety of good jobs."
Going to college is a good idea although there are some alternatives for learning purposes. I think the students are the ones that should decide whether to go or not because they are the one who is going to study and it’s also for their future.
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