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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Not Every Student Should Go to College. And That’s OK

By Michael B. Horn & Bob Moesta — March 10, 2020 5 min read
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Forty years ago 32 percent of counselors and teachers advised all students to go to college. Just 10 years later, in 1990, that percentage had doubled with roughly two-thirds of educators recommending college for all. Despite a recent surge in popularity for career and technical education, signs indicate that the college recommendation trend has increased over the last generation.

All that college-going advice may do harm in ways most adults in the lives of teenagers hadn’t realized. Research we conducted over the past several years suggests that a “college for all” message causes far too many students from all demographics to make choices that result in failure.

Instead of forcing college on students, educators would do better to encourage them to consider more than one pathway into a good life. Some pathways will include college now or later and some not. Educators also have a responsibility to help create those pathways, and students’ choices rather than their backgrounds should determine which they take.

Students who attend college for extrinsic reasons suffer poor outcomes."

In our research, we collected and analyzed more than 200 stories from students about their postsecondary education choices and surveyed over 1,000 more students to understand what caused them to enroll in college, both two- and four-year institutions, as well as some coding bootcamps and shorter graduate programs. Our participants were roughly representative of the population of students that attend college in the United States across gender, racial, and ethnic lines. Forty-six percent were first-generation college students, meaning neither of their parents had completed a bachelor’s degree. Eighteen percent had at least one child, and 60 percent lived in households with incomes that placed them in the bottom three socio-economic quintiles.

We learned that a significant number of students from all backgrounds enroll in college to do what’s expected of them or to help them get away from a bad circumstance in their lives. These students go to college not because they want the college experience or because of what college will help them obtain. In other words, they are motivated by external factors not internal goals. They choose college because it is a socially acceptable answer to what they are doing next.

Students who attend college for extrinsic reasons suffer poor outcomes. According to our research, 74 percent of those who attended college to “do what was expected of them” dropped out or transferred. Of those who went to college “to get away,” over half had left the school they were attending without a degree at the time we talked to them.

One student we talked to, who was the first in her family to attend college, chose college to get away from a bad relationship with her stepdad. She enrolled in a college three hours away from home—even though it didn’t have the courses of study in which she was interested. Once there, she took a heavier-than-usual course load first semester, partied hard, and found herself on academic probation.

Things improved a little second semester, but the improvement was not enough to justify the money she was spending on tuition, she thought. She still struggled with time management and a nagging sense that she didn’t know why she was enrolled. So with $40,000 in federal and private student loans outstanding, she dropped out, returned home, mended things with her family, and started to find jobs to help pay off the debt.

Too many students go to college not knowing what they want to get out of it or how to make it work for them. Committing to a four-year school and taking on lots of debt when they lack passion and focus for the endeavor is risky, particularly given the grim college completion and student debt statistics.

Over 40 percent of first-time, full-time students who started college in the fall of 2012 failed to graduate from four-year programs within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Non-completers not only lose out on the benefits of a college degree, but also face increased debt without increased earnings. Non-completers have a three-fold higher risk of default than completers, according to the Center for American Progress.

Instead of adding to the pressure around college, which parents often fuel, high school educators should be the first line of defense for students who might benefit more from another path. Yes, educators must avoid the low expectations that direct students away from college because of their family’s income, their race, or their ethnicity. Instead, they should encourage all students to reflect on their goals and explore more than one pathway to purpose and success.

One way to help is through courses that are now emerging to give students structured opportunities to discover what drives them. But high schools should go further. They must counter the narrowing of the curriculum over the last couple decades caused by an overemphasis on test results and the decrease in career and technical education pathways in many schools. Extracurricular activities, experiential learning, and opportunities to build relationships with adults outside of school through real-world projects can help students discover their strengths and interests. Rather than marginalize these opportunities, schools should integrate them into every student’s program.

Our research in no way implies that college is a one-time decision. Just because college isn’t the right step now

for a student doesn’t mean it will never be the right step. College and, more to the point, education can help bring a lifetime of happiness, as studies have documented. But that education has to be at the right time and in the right circumstance.

If students aren’t yet ready, then taking a gap year can be a smart move. The stereotype of rich kids gallivanting around Europe is outmoded. An increasing number of programs offer gap-year experiences with financial aid so that all students can partake of them. Counselors and teachers should help students explore these opportunities, which are filled with immersive activities that help students learn about themselves and, in many cases, earn money through holding a series of jobs. This can make a gap year considerably more affordable than college.

Far better than a monolithic college-for-all vision is for individuals to know where they are in their lives, what they want, and how to articulate it. Only then can we ensure that education delivers on its promise of helping people build their passions, fulfill their human potential, and live a lifetime of productive struggle and happiness.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Danger of ‘College for All’


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