School & District Management Opinion

Is College-for-All Hitting a Wall?

By Anthony Cody — November 19, 2010 3 min read
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Valerie Strauss today reported on a new study that reveals that college applications have risen dramatically in the past 15 years, and as a result, colleges have become increasingly selective. The result? This will “reduce opportunities for more low-income, first-generation students in all levels of higher education, including community colleges.”

Yet the mantra of many “reformers” is that our public schools must prepare ALL of our students for college, a path that does not seem likely to work out for the majority of them, especially in schools of poverty.

I first wrote about this here, two years ago, pointing out:

But is it reasonable to propose that everyone will or should go to college? The reality of our economic straits has begun to cast the shadow of doubt on this vision. I have some basic questions for those who are pushing the system to prepare all students for college.
Currently about 25% of the adults in the US are college graduates. Statistics regarding the economic advantage conferred by a college degree are based on that proportion. What would be the effect on wages of college graduates if that number were to increase substantially? The middle class in the US is shrinking in the current economy, and a college degree in the future may not be as precious as it has been in the past. There do not seem to be enough jobs for the graduates currently emerging from college -- will those jobs expand if the number of college graduates expands? Or will wages simply drop?

And what does the report tell us about our often vilified public school system?

The report shows that the number of Hispanics graduating from high school rose by 57% between 2000 and 2007. The number of Blacks rose by 30%. Applications for admission at four year colleges have risen by as much as 70% between 2001 and 2008.

Are these larger numbers of applicants coming from our schools that have been condemned as dropout factories? It is remarkable that in the midst of this supposed education crisis, the abject failure of our public school system, we are seeing larger numbers than ever of Hispanic and Black graduates applying to college.

Strauss explains:

The rise in applications at community colleges, for-profit institutions and less-selective public institutions appears to be a result of the increasing sizes over the years of graduating high school classes, and there has been growth in the number of applicants who are Hispanic and black, students who are more likely from moderate- and low-income families with less rigorous academic preparation. Many of these institutions have been hard hit by the economic downturn, and research shows that many of these underfunded public schools lack resources to meet the needs of their growing student bodies.

I have a lot of sympathy for teachers and schools who are seeking to prepare all their students for college. Shouldn’t we want for our students what we want for our own children? That they would be able to continue their learning beyond high school, and gain the skills and certificates needed for entry into the middle class?

But as a society, we have to look at the reality here.
First of all, this plan is not working out for all our students. Though the colleges have expanded a bit to allow more students, now they are bursting at the seams, and publicly funded colleges are facing major budget issues. Second, as this report shows, the colleges are becoming more selective, and even with a boost from supportive schools and teachers, many of our students from poverty are not academically competitive with students from middle class backgrounds. They are losing out in this scramble for limited slots. Third, as our tax base diminishes due to the insatiable appetite the wealthy have developed, there are fewer resources for public universities, and the costs are soaring out of reach for many students. Lastly, the idea that all our students will complete college and become middle class seems to fly in the face of what is happening to our economy. A look at this table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the top seven occupations with the largest projected numerical growth require at most a two-year Associates degree, and most require only short -term on-the-job training.

While I believe college is a desirable goal for many of our students, it is not always the best choice for everyone - and sometimes may not even be possible. And I have to wonder if there could be a better way? Finland, to which we are so often compared, prepares some 40% of their students for careers that do not require a four-year degree. I wonder if some of the students who currently drop out do so because they realize that the goal the schools have chosen for them does not match up with their actual options?

Update 1: I just came across an article with some scary numbers about college graduates that raise additional questions about the wisdom of urging all our students to pursue college degrees.

Currently, even after a slight boost in jobs growth, unemployment for 18-24 year olds stands at 24.7%. For 20-24 year olds, it hovers at 15.2%. These conservative estimates, using the Bureau of Labor Statistics U3 measure, do not reflect the number of marginally attached or discouraged young workers feeling the lag from a nearly moribund job market.
The U3 measure also does not count underemployment, yet with only 50% of B.A. holders able to find jobs requiring such a degree, underemployment rates are a telling index of the squeezing of the 18-30 year old Millennial generation. While it appears everyone is hurting since the financial collapse, young adults bear a disproportionate burden, constituting just 13.5% of the workforce while accounting for 26.4% of those unemployed. Even with good credentials, it is difficult for young people to find work and keep themselves afloat.

Update 2:
An article appeared in the Dec. 9, 2010, Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The Great College Degree Scam.” It states,

approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled--occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation's stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor's degree or more.

Update 3: an interesting video from ABC news:

What do you think? Is the drive to prepare all of our students for college hitting a wall? What might be a better approach?

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