Not Everyone Goes to College

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Bipartisan reformers shout out loud the facts why every high school student should go to college.

1. Employers want new hires who can write, think, solve problems, and have technical proficiency with high-tech software and hardware to keep their companies competitive in domestic and global markets.

2. Minority and poor youth (freeman_global_labour_imbalances) will constitute larger numbers of the employee pool in each decade and both equal opportunity and economic realities require most of these students to be prepared for college to compete in an information-based labor market.

3. Those who have a bachelor’s degree earn more money over their lifetime than those who have a high school diploma.

Reformers have bundled these facts into a strong argument pushing socioeconomic mobility and equity in sending everyone to college.

But a competing set of facts, not too often shouted, challenge this argument.

1. Most jobs generated in this decade and beyond do not require a four-year degree.

2. Nearly half of minority and poor youth who do enter college fail to finish.

3. A large fraction of young people prefer real world work situations over sitting in academic courses in order to get a credential.

4. White collar jobs (from software engineers to paralegals and medical technicians and specialists) are being automated and out-sourced to other countries.

What to make of these less publicized facts that tear holes in the dominant economic rationale for everyone going to college?

Clearly, these contrary facts have not silenced the popular slogans that continue to advertise the equity and socioeconomic mobility argument. Nor have these unpleasant facts slowed down (nor should they) the small fraction of highly motivated urban students who have worked hard to gain college admission. But, overall, even those hard-working urban students who will go to college have hardly made a dent in the unequal schooling that most poor and minority children and youth receive.

Evidence? High numbers of urban high school dropouts; high numbers of urban high school students who need remedial work in reading, math, and science; high numbers of college dropouts among minority youth.

What to do?

Everyone getting college degrees–even if it were financially possible–would be one-way tickets for many jobs that no longer pay middle-class salaries and higher levels of unemployment. Heedless of the counter-facts that hollow out their argument, bipartisan reformers still press for the necessity of college credentials.

Another policy choice is to generate a 21st century version of vocational education that combines rich intellectual content with job training.

Calls for a return to vocational education in secondary schools, however, dredge up memories and experiences of minority youth being dumped into dead-end voc-ed programs from which they dropout or graduate with certificates for jobs that had either disappeared or for which they were unqualified.

Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs have eased (but not erased) some of those memories as has the growth of programs that combine high school and community college technical courses. Sometimes called Career Academies or small themed schools built around a bevy of occupations–or Linked Learning (a.k.a. Multiple Pathways)–these programs combine strong academic content married to vocational experiences. Such programs avoid the either/or choice of vocational or academic curriculum. Many of these efforts have been effective in sending students to college and getting jobs for their graduates. But the ghost of high school voc-ed remains in the background. Voc-ed, however is not a bad word for colleges and universities.

Vocationalism already stamps colleges and universities across the nation. High school graduates prepare to be engineers, lawyers, doctors, architects, accountants, and dozens of other occupations and professions in undergraduate and graduate courses that are thoroughly vocational, except for the humanities.

Past and present debates over academic vs. vocational curricula and now whether everyone should go to college, however, are proxies for the constant question that reformers ask, generation after generation, giving different answers each time the question arises: what role should schools and colleges perform in a democratic society? Serve economic ends for society and individuals? Build thoughtful and engaged citizens who work to improve themselves and their communities? Broaden intellectual and humanistic reach of children and youth? All of these? Recent surveys (MetLife_Teacher_Survey_2010) continue to show both agreement and disagreement over what schools should do.

For 2011, with budget retrenchment and cuts in both K-12 and higher education spending dominating policymaker choices, I see no end to the loud rhetoric from advocates of college for everyone. As college tuition and fees escalate, as cuts in teachers inflate K-12 class sizes, and as more and more policymakers grab hold of online schooling as a way of shaving educational costs–“everyone goes to college”–will become a shabby bumper sticker yet one that still overshadows programs that blend intellectual content and job training.


Filed under school reform policies

17 responses to “Not Everyone Goes to College

  1. Pingback: Remainders: The lavish lives and cribs of New York teachers | GothamSchools

  2. Pingback: Online Education in America » Blog Archive » Remainders: The lavish lives and cribs of New York teachers

  3. Tim

    Hi, Larry. As a Co-Director of an inner-city school that prepares low-income students to enter, succeed in, and graduate from college, I continue to be amazed that it’s usually highly-educated white men in positions of tenure or power who always advocate that college isn’t for everybody.

  4. Patty

    As a mom who works at Columbia University and the wife of a professor, I agree that vocational education is important. It’s important for kids to learn real skills and then they are more likely to go to college. In NYC kids have school choice. The schools generally thought of as “elite”, such as Hunter and Stuyvesant, are liberal artsy. Stuy might be more math/sci, but it’s still a school based on theory and general learning, rather than hands-on nuts and bolts. My son is super smart and we are a family which is, sadly, intellectual. However I learned that my son does not do well in a theory-only program. He does well when he is up and about and working hands on. I am hoping and praying that he gets into one of the non-elite CTE schools. I also have\, well, maybe only a little doubt that he will go on to college–and not just because he’s from a college family, although that certainly is partly the case. Certainly, it’s not all, however. He has been in real danger of not completing nearly every grade of school. I think he’ll go to college if he goes to a CTE school because the CTE schools do prep kids for college. They also have hands-on real skill building which allows the kids to see why they are learning a concept. Why is crucial. It keeps kids engaged. Once you see a CTE school on a tour and see that what these kids do is REAL, it’s really hard to go back to the other schools that say, “And now let’s look at this next model of real life.” It makes you ask, So when will my real life begin? He toured the CTE schools and lit up like a flare. I can only believe that having real skills can also only help when you attend college. In addition one of the glorious things about living in NYC is that he is every day exposed to all kinds of lives and sees the consequences of all kinds of choices, both on the street and among his friends at schools. They are from all sorts of economic, ethnic, and racial background. Again, being immersed in the real world can only help when he goes to college.

  5. I’m curious Tim. Do you also help cover the costs of college for these students? I’d love to get some data from you. What percentage of the students you prepare go to college? Complete college? A list of the jobs they get when they do would be useful. What exactly is wrong with preparing students for careers with real jobs? See Paul Krugman piece in Monday’s Times.

    Oh, and I just love how you pulled the race card. It seems like there an awful lot of white ed deformers trying to tell the black community (after making sure they have no democratic rights over their own schools (as white people in the suburbs do) by empowering one mayor (most often white) to funnel enormous amounts of public monies into private hands.

  6. Steve Davis

    I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to go to college. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to, has to or should go to college. We are currently selling students a rotten bill of goods. We imply that they will be economic and social failures if they don’t go to college. What does that do to academically unprepared/underperforming students’ self-esteem and sense of efficacy? We make them slog through academic tedium that they don’t like and don’t do well in. They begin to think that they’re not smart. We use, “you need this for college” as a refrain for why they need to learn the things they aren’t interested in and the students sometimes reply earnestly that they don’t want to go to college anyway. And what about the fact that a college degree doesn’t really guarantee the success that politicians, educators, and teachers promise it holds?

    I advise students to learn a vocational trade in the last two years of high school (Central County Occupational Center (CCOC) in Santa Clara offers programs like this) and then continue on at a university or junior college for academic training. The problem is that many 9th and 10th graders have already dug themselves an academic hole that excludes them from participation in CCOC job training, since it require a student to be on-track for graduation. These sorts of regional occupational centers have become the last bastion for job training since voc-ed has been eliminated from most high school campuses. It has become common practice to shut down the auto, metal or wood shop once the schools’ instructor has retired. The district then uses that square footage in a way that’s more economically viable for itself.

    And what about all of the undocumented students who can’t qualify for student loans and who will not have citizenship even if they muster up the funds for their education on their own? This is the real elephant in the room that most educators and teachers dare not even discuss with students or their parents.

    It’s time to push the pendulum back towards some sort of voc-ed training on individual high school campuses.

    • Karen Sherwood

      Great response, Steve, …and thank you, Larry, for bringing up this important topic. As an English teacher for almost four decades, I am still passionate about conveying to my students the joys (and importance) of reading, writing, discussion, and critical thinking as part of a full and productive life. I certainly do encourage my students to consider college as an option and to prepare themselves academically, but I have had so many students who cut class, who do little or no classwork, and who do not do homework or study for tests (“Sorry, Miss, but I hate reading.”) , but who nonetheless tell me that they want to go to college so that they can get a good job. It’s Fantasyland. How about educating students about interesting jobs which do not require a college education or which require only a minimum of academic training. In the current political environment, teachers who encourage students to look for other non-college options, or who acknowledge that a student’s poor skills (or lack of motivation) would probably stand in the way of academic success would probably be accused of having “low expectation.” If the reformers really want school “choice”, how about giving the students and their parents an actual choice about whether their child should be in a full academic program, or in a program that could help prepare him for a specific career while still giving him the option of attending a community college or taking non-matriculated college courses if he so desires.

  7. JB

    Tim, what kind of high school are you the Co-Director of? I’m all in favor of any school that succeeds at the mission you describe, but I’m also unaware of any public low-income-serving high school that doesn’t have many students who are poorly served by the message of “you’re a loser if you don’t go to college.” And that would also include plenty of majority white schools in rural and suburban areas for that matter. If you have a self-selected student body (i.e. charter, parochial, magnet) you’re not seeing the students who need other options.

  8. H

    All students should have the opportunity to go to college, period. Students graduating from high school should have the knowledge necessary to attend-and be successful at-a four-year university. It is disgusting that anyone would suggest otherwise, particularly when discussing children from low-income communities. I am a teacher servicing children with special needs in a low-income community and I know that when I hold my students to high expectations, they succeed. It is abhorrent that an educator would suggest students should not be able to attend and succeed in college. The real failure when a minority student from a high needs community drops out of college is not that of the student, it is of the education system and the teachers who did not fulfill their end of the bargain. It is time to stop making excuses for teachers who cannot teach. It is time to remove self-interested educators from the classroom, and it is time to give our students who face some of the most difficult life circumstances the chance to have an excellent education. And JB, get your facts straight. Charters do not hand select students; they serve the same demographic that other high-need schools serve. The difference is that their work force is not unionized, allowing for more flexibility and time on content instruction.

  9. Cal

    I see no end to the loud rhetoric from advocates of college for everyone

    In this blog, even!

    Incidentally, Larry, you and I disagreed about the degree to which educational policy and reform efforts are obsessed by the achievement gap. You said I overstated the role race and achievement played in educational debates. If you keep making posts like this one, the indignant responses and their focus on race may change your mind.

    I agree with your post, of course. This may sound odd, but 50 years ago, a high school dropout could have a job and a family by working at the equivalent of a 7-11. Today, such jobs are sneered at–and they certainly don’t pay well enough to support a family. How is that progress? And why are we blaming education for that shift?

  10. Steve Davis


    What does “you and I disagreed about the degree to which educational policy and reform efforts are obsessed by the achievement gap” mean?

    Seems like Larry wrote a pretty balanced piece to me. He acknowledges that “Calls for a return to vocational education in secondary schools, however, dredge up memories and experiences of minority youth being dumped into dead-end voc-ed programs from which they dropout or graduate with certificates for jobs that had either disappeared or for which they were unqualified.” I don’t think Larry is saying that students should not be able to go to college. The point is that detracking and the college for everyone mantra has not payed academic or economic dividends on the scale promised. And California’a proposition 209 has probably done more to limit “minority” access to higher education than any education policy.


    What are the age groups you work with?

    The talking point that “when [teachers] hold…students to high expectations, they succeed” just doesn’t hold water for all students in all circumstances. By that logic, teachers with low expectations are the major contributing factor in the student failure rate; I don’t buy it. Students should be held to high expectations and they should be pushed cognitively instead of focusing on basic skills. However, some students, especially teenagers, are immersed in trying on new personas and dealing with family and relationship dramas that preclude sustained engagement in academic pursuits over the course of the semester. A semester is quite a long period of time to a 15-year-old.

    Who suggested that “Students graduating from high school should have the knowledge necessary to attend-and be successful at-a four-year university. It is disgusting that anyone would suggest otherwise, particularly when discussing children from low-income communities”? I think this is a misreading of the article and posters’ comments.

    I know a girl who was rather mediocre in her academic classes during her first two years of high school; she even failed a few classes. Then she went to occupational training where she learned how to work on diesel engines. She passionately learned mathematics and improved her reading skills because she was applying them to a context she cared about and that was relevant to her instead of doing abstract practice problems from a book and reading some drivel she couldn’t care less about. Now she is doing an internship for Caterpillar and they are paying for her to continue her education. She would probably not be going to school right now if it weren’t for her voc-ed experience.

    Also, while charters may “serve the same demographic that other high-need schools serve,” they cherry-pick from that demographic. Students and parents self select into charters and are required to sign-on to demanding requirements. Students and parents that don’t live up to the requirements are place back in traditional schools.

  11. JB

    H, what age students do you teach? what type of special needs do they have? which of your students have made it through a 4-year university, and what did they major in? will those majors lead to family-supporting incomes, or are they generic majors where everyone passes (these do exist). It’s interesting to me that you blame the teachers if students don’t make it through college; 18-21 year-olds are adults, and should not need constant hand-holding; isn’t it a better idea to blame teachers farther up the pipeline? and most of all, WHY must every child graduate from a 4-year college when the returns are iffy for students in the middle and lower ends of the academic spectrum (regardless of income or racial background). Most people who hold that opinion are reduced to “because it’s not equitable if some graduate and some don’t.” But even if you only look at students from the upper quintile economically, many don’t attend college and even more don’t graduate. And finally, are you aware that most jobs do not require a college degree?

  12. Cal

    I don’t think Larry is saying that students should not be able to go to college.

    And this has something to with my post how, exactly? I didn’t even mention the word college in my recollection of the conversation about the achievement gap, as it had nothing to do with college.

    My agreement with Larry, too, said nothing about not allowing students to go to college.

    So I don’t know what you’re going on about, but it had nothing to do with my comment.

  13. Steve Davis


    You’re right. My comment that “I don’t think Larry is saying that students should not be able to go to college” had nothing to do with your post. If you notice, my post also addressed comments made by “H.” I should have referenced “H” a paragraph sooner than I did or split the comments into two posts. Apologies for any confusion.

    But what about a clarification of your comment that “you and I disagreed about the degree to which educational policy and reform efforts are obsessed by the achievement gap”? I really don’t understand what you’re saying there. And what is your opinion on the matter?

  14. Cal


    Here’s the conversation. It wasn’t a major focus of his post, but I was pointing out that educational reform efforts are obsessed with the achievement gap.

    So Larry posts about vocational ed and instantly two commenters attack him because they anticipate (correctly, I believe) that if we offered voc ed instead of restricting students to one academic curriculum, under-represented minorities would disproportionately select this option. In other words, any educational reform suggestion is instantly viewed through the achievement gap prism, hence reinforcing my observation of a few months ago.

    As for my opinion on the matter at hand, I thought I said I agreed with Larry’s post. I would add, however, that we tend to focus on the high end of “voc ed”. The fact is, little training is needed to work at a 7-11 or bus tables. But instead of seeing these jobs as viable options for students with little aptitude for school (regardless of race), we dismiss them as insulting and hand them off to immigrants–who drive down wages for the very population that we’re trying to help.

    There are many jobs that simply don’t require training and are unrelated to education per se–other than the basics of reading, writing, and rithmetic that we want to give all our students. But since most people suspect (again, probably correctly) that those jobs would not reflect a proportional racial distribution, the suggestion is dismissed as racist–even if the students actively choose these jobs and welcome the opportunity.

  15. JB

    I certainly do not want to suggest that people start scrutinizing these numbers, but it’s clearly true that if you divide the “anglo” population up into sub-groups (Italian, Polish, Appalachian, Irish, Jewish, Greek, etc) and match those groups up with college completion stats, occupational stats, and other outcome type measures, you will find that the groups do not have identical outcomes. Some of those differences are much higher than you would expect. So do we get upset about them? no, we simply commit to making sure that all of those groups have access to a decent education, and that in general hope that not too many kids in any group will end up in poverty. It’s different with racial minorities because of the history of discrimination, but at some point we’re going to have to live with the choices that people make.

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