Why everyone shouldn’t go to college

Should everyone go to college? A lot of K-12 school reform is predicated on that notion. Here is a different view fromLarry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is “As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin.” This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban

Three facts caught my eye recently:

*In California, 260,000 college graduates under the age of 30 are working in low-paying jobs that have historically gone to high school graduates and dropouts such as food services, retail sales, and clerical work.

*In the past three years 35 to 60 college graduates have enrolled in Hostos Community College (Bronx, New York City) to train for careers in Information Technology (IT), nursing, and medical technicians.

*Pathways in Technology Early College High School–P-Tech for short–opened to 230 students in Brooklyn (NY) this year to prepare students for technical jobs. A six-year program in cooperation with IBM and other companies will produce graduates with associate degrees prepared for entry-level jobs paying $40,000 like software specialists who answer questions from customers.

I know it may be a stretch but here is how I tie these facts together.

When high school students enter a six-year technology program to earn associate degrees that will lead to middle-class jobs at places like IBM, and when B.A. and B.S. graduates take low-paying service and retail industry jobs while other college grads return to community colleges to get training for medical and technical jobs, serious questions arise about the current mantra of everyone has to go to college.

How many U.S. high school graduates enter and stay in college anyway?

Consider that the percentage of U.S. students ages 18-24 enrolled in college had increased from 35 in 2000 to 41 in 2010. While rising in the past decade, nearly 60 percent were not enrolled. Consider also that in 2010, nearly 70 percent of those just graduating high school  immediately enrolled in college. But that percentage is misleading since most who enroll, drop out of college.

Surely finances play a large part in student decisions to attend and persist in higher education until graduation. Average annual tuition in 2010 for public colleges and universities was just over $13,000 and for private higher education, $32,000. The figures, of course, do not factor in living costs. And just as surely, there are other reasons for not attending college including such thoughts that four more years of studying academic subjects is tedious work and no guarantee of high-paying jobs.

So are there alternative routes for secondary school students to take besides going directly into higher education? Yes, there is but it is hardly a glowing picture.

The slow demise of vocational education in the past three decades and gradual growth of career and technical education (CTE) and cooperative programs between area community colleges and high schools–see above–is a back-story that needs telling for two reasons. First, there is persuasive evidence that CTE is effective for youth from minority and poor backgrounds and those effects last well into young adulthood. Second, the truth that not all students want four more years of academic work after getting their diploma seldom merits mention by the current crop of school reformers.

On the matter of evidence, James Kemple has studied CTE exhaustively using “gold standard” designs and found that those students in Career Academies, especially males, who completed these programs earned more money than those who were in non-Academy programs. Moreover, larger percentages of Career Academy graduates were living independently with a partner or spouse and children than non-Academy graduates.

As for the simple truth that not all students are eager for continued academic work divorced from real-world work, such recognition of that truth would give ulcers to most top-level policymakers (and parents) committed to “college for everyone.”

Truth-telling would undermine the current and widely popular reforms of making all K-12 classes college preparatory. Truth-telling might sway policymakers (and parents) to consider alternative pathways that include CTE and joint programs with community colleges. Truth-telling might inform parents that millions of jobs created by 2018 will not require a four-year degree. Truth-telling might reveal that of all high schools in the U.S., for example, half do not offer any CTE to their students–yes, that is correct. No program at all. And that was in 2002 before the frenzy for “everyone goes to college” had ramped up. Only 5 percent of all high schools in the nation have full-time CTE.

So there is an important back-story to be told about the three facts that I listed above and there are alternatives for those students who seek practical and worthy career choices beyond spending four more years in academic studies and borrowing lots of money for a higher education.

But raising questions about whether all students should go to college especially when there are viable alternatives available to youth is, to say the least, not even near the top of reformers’ agenda today. It should be.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 6, 2012