School & District Management

Should Everyone Go to College?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 21, 2009 2 min read
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Today is the first “official” public release of the draft common standards. (The use of the word “official,” I’m guessing, is to distinguish today’s release from the unexpected and unsanctioned first release of the draft standards in July. Today’s draft incorporates comments that piled up after the first draft was released.) Here’s our story about the revised standards posted today; it links to our story about the earlier release, as well.

As you probably know already, the common standards are supposed to help raise expectations to ensure that students are ready for the rigors of college work.

The argument that all students need to be ready for college certainly has its share of devoted supporters, fueled in no small part by a certain guy who moved into that big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue earlier this year, and has been calling for America to reclaim its former glory as a world leader in baccalaureate achievement. But the idea has its share of skeptics, too, and their arguments are part of an intriguing dialogue about how high school should be handling their students.

A couple of recent cases in point: The Urban Institute held a forum last week questioning whether everyone should go to college. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal gives the college-isn’t-for-everyone argument some prominence. And a paper published recently on, the new online magazine of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, argues that precious resources are wasted by admitting to college too many students with low levels of cognitive skill, discipline, or motivation.

(The author of that paper, Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, made some related points in a story I wrote last June for EdWeek’s Diplomas Count report.)

There is a progressive, egalitarian appeal in the argument that all young people can and should be prepared to do well enough to earn college degrees. But there are many smart, thoughtful, and experienced people out there who are urging everyone to think more carefully before pressing most students into college, or even demanding that they be prepared for college.

Several arguments come into play here, from a flammable one about whether all students have sufficient cognitive ability for higher education to questions about whether most future jobs really will demand a college education, and whether the right career- and tech-ed options can be equally good paths for students.

Some of these arguments win more political-correctness points than others. How that “correctness” will color the debate over the draft common standards, and its outcome, remains to be seen. Here’s to an open and thoughtful debate.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.