College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

College Is Not for Everyone

By Rona Wilensky — April 19, 2005 4 min read
High school graduates need the same education whether they are destined for college and or the workplace of the 21st century.

Sometimes it seems that the state of our nation’s schools is the one area of bipartisan agreement that exists in our heavily polarized national political culture. The president, the secretary of education, and now most of the states’ governors agree that our schools are terrible—standards are too low, students are unprepared, and our economy is on the edge of collapse because of bad schooling.

The latest example of this consensus comes from the National Governors Association’s February education summit, at which Bill Gates seems to have spoken for everyone present when he declared, “America’s high schools are obsolete.” Worse still, they are “ruining the lives of millions of Americans.”

As summit participants explained it, high school graduates need the same education whether they are destined for college and or the workplace of the 21st century. The justification for this new, uniform approach to education is taken from data showing that a significant proportion of all 21st-century jobs will require some postsecondary training. Indeed, by the year 2010, one out of every five jobs will require a college degree, and almost a third of all jobs will require some college preparation. This is a significant increase in the demands on new entrants to the workforce compared to years past, yet it does not explain why 100 percent of all high school students should take and pass a college-preparatory course.

Proponents of the notion that preparation for work and preparation for college are the same point to the work of the economist Anthony Carnevale, formerly of the Educational Testing Service, who claims that Algebra 2 is the new gateway course for economic success in America. Carnevale studied the educational background of workers in the highest income categories. He found that the vast majority went to four-year colleges. Because Algebra 2 is a universal entrance requirement of four-year colleges, he concluded that Algebra 2 is an absolute necessity for a living wage.

Carnevale came firmly to this conclusion even though he also found that Algebra 2 is only a real requirement for approximately 5 percent of all jobs—the majority of which are jobs teaching math. Having apparently disproved his own argument, he shifted ground, claiming that Algebra 2 is a useful proxy for important critical-thinking skills. Unfortunately, a close look at the past 10 years of ACT data shows that this argument is equally illusory. There is no link between the increase in students’ taking and passing Algebra 2 and other traditional college-preparatory classes and their college readiness.

Let us revamp high school ... so that a diploma means all students are truly ready for the postsecondary technical training and education that the majority of jobs demand.

If, in order to actually raise achievement, we would have to find ways to substantively change teaching and learning across the curriculum and across the nation, why not take this opportunity and do away with proxies for the skills we want all students to learn? Let us revamp high school to teach the actual skills students need across the economy, so that a diploma means all students are truly ready for the postsecondary technical training and education that the majority of jobs demand.

The research on what businesses actually want and need from employees reveals a list of outcomes different from college-entrance requirements. Employers want substantive literacy in reading, writing, and speaking; mathematical problem-solving skills; the ability to think critically about scientific, political, technical, and social issues; cultural competency; an ability to work independently and in groups; good work habits; and initiative. Unfortunately, an academic, college-preparatory track in high school cannot guarantee these outcomes even for its best students, and, perhaps more significantly, neither can most colleges.

A four-year college degree is not needed or wanted by everyone. A good high school education is. By all means, increase the value and rigor of a high school diploma. Make sure that students who graduate are ready to benefit from more education, most of it technical. And certainly, create schools that increase the number of students who graduate, especially in our poorest communities. But drop the misguided notion that preparation for the academic work of a four-year college is identical to preparation for the world of work as it actually exists outside our doors and for the foreseeable future.

In the day-to-day life of schools and students there is a world of difference between the expectation that all students will be ready for college and the expectation that all students will have the skills described above. One size does not fit all in any known human domain. Why should it in high school? Imposing one curriculum and one outcome, college, on all students does an enormous disservice to the wide range of students our public schools serve, and is based on an illusory notion of what our market economy can absorb.

Perhaps most problematic of all, were we to be successful in getting everyone to write those analytic term papers, factor those quadratic equations, and read those classics of literature, the laws of supply and demand would inexorably operate to reduce the current wage differential enjoyed by college graduates. And we can be sure that our social, political, and economic system would find new ways—perhaps through the quality of the college attended, perhaps through a requirement for the completion of a postbaccalaureate degree—to identify that much smaller group of people who would be rewarded with prestige and high incomes.

Let us use the reform of high school as the occasion to truly redesign that institution so that all students can be prepared for the full range of postsecondary options. It should not be an opportunity to solidify the stranglehold that colleges and universities have on both opportunities and our notions of the good life.


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