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.
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.