Class Struggle

College offers far more than a career path

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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, August 26, 2010

My favorite teacher, Patrick Welsh, wrote an intriguing essay for USA Today about what he considers an overabundance of high school students going on to college. The same sentiments were expressed in a well-phrased letter from Eugene Morgan of Wheaton, published on The Post's editorial page June 20.

Morgan said he hopes our political and educational leaders read a recent Washington Post story by my colleague Carol Morello, suggesting that some students choosing college might be happier in trade schools. "Encouraging every student to go to college is not realistic," Morgan said. Welsh said that many students at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, where he teaches English, go off to college without the skills or motivation to do well there and that they don't really need to go to college to have successful lives.

There has long been doubt about the necessity of college for all, even in the Washington region, with the nation's highest percentage of bachelor's degrees. Now that the promise of college is being used to motivate some of our most disadvantaged public school students, some critics wonder whether those kids need to go into debt when they can have fine careers as legal assistants and plumbers with less risk to their financial security and self-esteem. A book coming out this fall by Stanford historian David F. Labaree argues that promoting college for all does little to erase social inequities, but it forces everyone to seek even higher credentials (we're soon going to need something better than a doctorate to satisfy social climbers, he says) while bankrupting our families and our government.

"We educators -- and most parents -- keep giving all kids the impression that without a college degree, they will be on a slippery slope to oblivion and poverty," said Welsh, who also contributes to The Post's Outlook section. He doesn't cite evidence, although I think it is true that in this region, going to college has become second nature to most parents and their children, as instinctual as taking an August vacation.

The majority of American parents don't have college degrees and are less bothered when their children don't lust for them. As long as our kid has a job that gets her out of our house, we parents nationwide don't complain much, although we are ready to help if college becomes her choice.

My complaint about Morgan and Welsh's argument is that they portray college as nothing more than a route to certain careers, unnecessary for those who, as Morgan says, "fix our cars and computers and clean up oil spills in Louisiana." The lifelong benefits of four years studying the world, testing one's interests and communing with other thoughtful young adults seem lost on them. What do they say of other vital life choices that can cost as much as college and still have little connection to future job prospects? Would Morgan or Welsh argue that starting a family, joining a church or buying a home are similarly a waste of time?

Welsh cites a study that says by 2018, two out of three jobs will not require even two-year college degrees, just licenses, certificates or job training. He says the four qualities most prized by employers are a work ethic, people skills, presentation skills and social responsibility. I know Welsh wants to challenge all students, so he should add that qualifying for that training or license, or acquiring those qualities, requires the same creative and aggressive teaching needed to get ready for college.

Show me how to prepare for a good life without the challenge of a college- and life-conscious high school program. I don't see it. I am particularly uncomfortable with any plan that lets 14-year-old ninth-graders choose a vocational track, as used to happen with low-income kids. Welsh hates that as much as I do, but his essay encourages those who don't think it's so bad.

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