College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

College for All? Ways--and Means.

By Nancy Flanagan — June 29, 2015 4 min read
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It’s been pretty quiet in a Strange Land lately. I have been on mental hiatus. I could explain that with a long list of all the edu-things I have been doing (expiating the guilt while simultaneously puffing up my resume’)--but the truth is, I have been soaking up warm weather, visiting friends and family, and expanding my garden. Write a blog--or water the rudbeckia? No contest. Teachers everywhere--now relaxing in the bathing suit they purchased 10 years ago, the last time they went clothes shopping--get that. Everyone needs breaks to recharge.

But. Riding the wave of simultaneous horror, sorrow, optimism, activism and even (Hallelujah!) statesmanship that rose this month, across America, I pledge to post a dozen times in the month of July. I have a long list of ideas and issues and events to muse on--teachers in a strange land, indeed--plus some wonderful blogs from teacher leaders in my Teacher as Change Agent course to share.

Beginning with this topic: College for All. Or--College-Ready? (Actually, recently it’s been more like Oh No! Not College-Ready! What to do, what to do?) What’s the underlying impetus with all the chatter about Our Failing Schools not getting enough kids into college? Or the scolding about their need to take “remedial” work once they get there? Why should students be excited about college, especially when resources are short and they’re likely to be deemed deficient once they get there?

Does everyone need to go to college? Or is it merely a de rigueur credential for the privileged, a task to be completed before launching into the world of work?

Anyone who wants to write with credibility about college ought to begin by reading the marvelous Mike Rose, who writes about “non-traditional” students (the term itself is revealing), who are actually doggedly attending college in the belief that more education will be a step up to a better, more secure, economically stable life. They still trust that the things we used to say about college--the key to success--are true.

Rose writes with great compassion and understanding about those who passionately wish to successfully complete a degree program, but must cope with dozens of real barriers. There are many ways to be a college student, Rose tells us--and the desire to learn ought to be the most critical factor, not the competing for global jobs, ranking/sorting/selecting and imposition of phony rigor that seems to be our go-to framework recently.

This week, in an apparently unintentional contradiction, the Center for Michigan wrote in glowing terms about the Kalamazoo Promise (wherein students who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools are provided with in-state tuition to attend any public college in Michigan that accepts them), while simultaneously promoting a package of ideas crafted by Public Sector Consultants to “fix” public education in the state.

One of their recommendations is (and I quote): College, College, College! The proposed solution to getting more students over the hump into higher ed is putting a “college advisor” in every Michigan high school. There is a bit of grumbling about how ordinary school guidance counselors (read: former counselors, now test coordinators) aren’t doing the job of getting kids to see beyond work and community college toward the raised aspiration of more prestigious institutions. These “college advisors” are youthful, appealing recent college grads--talk about your “starter job” opportunity--whose positions are co-funded by (you guessed it) colleges and universities, plus a handful of non-profits.

So how do we--realistically, and for the right reasons--push citizens to pursue higher education? We might begin by asking why college, college, college is the go-to goal. I’m all for a more educated citizenry and workforce. But I’m not sure we get that by putting hip twenty-somethings with a shiny new degree into high schools, where their job involves talking kids into applying for four-year colleges, especially as costs are rising faster than uncontrolled floodwaters.

We might begin by asking why anyone (not just 18-year olds) should go to college. If the answer isn’t about individual learning and growth, being a social contributor through education, then we’re falling for the “our state’s data is worse than state X’s data” fallacy. College can be for all, at any point in life--for high school grads, for young adults moving into new fields, for parents seeking new perspectives, for retirees who want to give back to the community that has supported them.

And urging kids to go to “better” colleges is an invitation to financial burdens undertaken early in life, before students understand how long it takes to get out from under a long-term loan, with a starter job. There are ways to get to college, but you’d best be thinking about means, as well.

When attending a public school means money--the means--for college, as well as the preparation, we’re talking about a whole different ball game.

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