Yesterday's Economic Scene Column by David Leonhardt captures my biggest objection to the "not everybody should go to college" argument. He concludes the column by writing that:
I don’t doubt that the skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one — for me and not for thee. And that’s rarely good advice.
First, some context. Fewer than one-third of 25-29 year-olds have earned a four-year degree, and even fewer adults from older generations have done similarly. And evidence abounds that students from high-SES families are far more likely to obtain a college diploma (to the extent that high-achieving high school students from poor families are less likely to earn a diploma than are lower-achieving students from wealthier families). The last stat that I read was that 67% of students at the top 200 or so colleges come from families ranking in the top quartile economically while only 10% come from households ranking in the bottom half. So if it's true that too many people are attending college, that probably means too many kids of high-SES parents are attending college.
But it seems that those who most forcefully demand that fewer people attend college and/or that more people should pursue other options possess college degrees themselves -- and plan on sending their own children to college. Depending on how one looks at it, that makes many of these arguments either elitist or hypocritical.
This argument, however, creates a no-win situation. College preparation and academic aptitude of low ses students starts to lag behind in elementary school (and before). Many of those students are genuinely not prepared for the level of work they will encounter in college.
If they can get through a college program, it is at a non-prestigious school and in a less technical program. Those are not the type of college graduates we need at an economic level. More likely those students will start taking classes, take out some loans, then drop out without the degree. They are now in worse financial shape than they were before and don't have the degree that could eventually get them out of it.
College should not be limited based on anything other than preparation. But we need to have the strength to tell some students that they aren't sufficiently prepared and that they need to either prepare more or find another path. Then we can focus our educational energies on closing that earlier gap.
I agree with protoscholar. Having taught both in low-income and high-income schools, I've seen the absurdity of trying to prepare woefully underprepared high school students for college. In the case of lower-IQ students, it's even more frustrating for them to be required to take college-prep courses that they fail. It does seem to me that by the beginning of high school, we should have a more realistic plan (or alternative options) for those students who may not want to attend college (or simply are not academically able to do so).
That said, I am in favor of programs that assist high-achieving low-income kids in getting loans or grants/scholarships. It is an injustice if a bright, motivated student can't attend a university simply due to finances. However, I read in The Bell Curve that most high-achieving low-income kids are able to go on to college, so perhaps this isn't as much of a problem as we may think.
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