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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Questioning the Purpose and Value of College for All Students

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Every once in a while, a contrarian appears and challenges some of our basic assumptions about schooling in today's society. One of the biggest assumptions we have is that it is the job of school to prepare all our students for college. The jobs of the future require a four-year degree, at least. Students who do not go to college will be unable to find decent paying jobs and will be unable to support their families.

But I have wondered about this assumption for years. The majority of Americans still do not have college diplomas, yet they seem to manage to survive. Furthermore, it is unclear to me where all the highly paid jobs are going to come from if, all of a sudden, everyone earns a college degree. Everything I've read says that it is the service sector of the economy that is growing the fastest, and most of those jobs require little or no college education.

From Dennis Redovich at the Center for the Study of Jobs & Education in Wisconsin and the United States comes a report that says the following:

"The great numbers of high-paying jobs of the future that are claimed to require college graduation and high academic skills for all high school students are a hoax. The majority of the jobs of the future in Wisconsin and the United States are low- or average-paying jobs that require short-term or moderate-term on-the-job training and do not require high-level academic skills in any academic areas, particularly in higher mathematics."

The report then goes on to explain:

"Technology makes jobs simpler, not more difficult, and makes workers more productive. The great majority of the jobs of the future are the same jobs of the twentieth century with new technological tools that make these jobs easier to do. The jobs of the future in Wisconsin in 2016 are essentially the same jobs in existence in 2006. A majority of jobs in 2016, about 52 percent, are projected to require short-term on-the-job training or experience (less than a month) or moderate-length on-the-job training, experience, or education (one to twelve months)."

This conclusion has a lot of implications for our schools, especially on the high school course sequence. The report has this to say on that subject:

"It is not appropriate or constructive to require all high school students to pass three years of higher math and science courses and to meet the requirements for a four-year college to earn a high school diploma. No more than 5 percent of all jobs might require higher math and science skills, and only about 23 percent of all jobs require a bachelor's degree or more. Short-, moderate-, or long-term job training, work experience, postsecondary vocational training, or an associate degree is required for about 77 percent of all jobs. There is an abundance of well-educated people for jobs that require higher levels of education and training. The problem is available jobs, not public education."

This analysis also suggests we ought to take a second, hard look at vocational programs. Perhaps if we had more programs that prepared students for jobs in the real world they are entering, they might find school to be more relevant to their futures and stay to graduate rather than dropping out. When the only purpose of high school is to prepare you for a four-year college, those who are not college bound have little reason to stay.

I do not want to suggest that high school is simply here to prepare students for jobs. A high school education should -- like a good college education -- open students' minds to their possible futures. Students should be intellectually challenged in new ways. But our students come to us with different aspirations, interests, and abilities. The challenge of solving a quadratic equation is a noble one. But is the challenge of crafting something useful in a shop class any less noble?

So, what do you think? Should we structure our schools based on the assumption that everyone should go to college? Or should we listen to Dennis Redovich and rethink our approach?

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Comments (50)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Shellie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I ,too, believe that there has been too much emphasis on college, period. How many of those graduates are working menial jobs because the field they have degrees in, do not have any openings. So you will find college grades asking "would you like fries with that?" I agree with all that said the kids should be taught how to be happy, how to enjoy life because it is too short to be concentrating on nothing but money and success. True success doen't come from money, nor does true happiness. I am a homeschooling mom to three very smart children, my daughter graduated from our homeschool when she was 15 1/2. She is considering college, but not now, she wants to find out who she is, and if college would really be right for her. She will be 18 in April. My sons, 17,16 (in May) aren't sure what they want yet, and my husband I aren't going to push them into anything. All three are very creative, innovative, happy, smart children. My oldest son tried high school for a yr and some months, we just pulled him out recently. All the teachers were just teaching for SATS, not to mention not one of his classes, did the students get their own books. They had to share, and the history teacher had to buy a set of books out of his own pocket so the kids would have books that weren't taped together or photocopied. In college (esp. the Ivy League) teachers are told to keep the kids in class no matter what, so they create a curve that is beyond belief, students that would be getting a lot less than an F, are suddenly passing. "The do whatever it takes" motto isn't right. It isn't teaching the students anything other than the easy way out. Some teachers are having to not teach what their classes are, and go way back to remedial, because some students cannot form sentences, cannot write an essay, weren't ever taught the basics in high school. This was on a PBS educational special. I know it is true. It is awful for parents (and some students) having to pay the disgustingly high tution, only for them to not truely learn. Life will teach you more than any school could.

Thank you for your time, and hope your days are filled with laughter, joy, and happiness.

"Talk without offending; Listen without defending."

Glen Calkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A college education is one of the thresholds that give career path opportunities/license. It is a rare and exceptional individual who can bypass licensing process and still open the doors for these opportunities. So mathematically, if you choose any of those career flight paths, your potential for getting started is hugely impacted by the threshold education.
Having said that, we often find that the top of the hill achievers in many fields, found a passion for learning and testing/growing/applying knowledge far beyond the classroom preparation and often seek to overcome the perceived flaws from their academic history to expand the opportunity for others, to become engaged with, to have the courage and self confidence to achieve their potential. I find this in parents, teachers, professionals and often in entrepreneurs.
Education is not just to prepare us for more education. It optimally expands our ability to think, explore, solve problems, ask questions, and become better citizens of the home, community, profession, nation and world. Are these benefits limited to those who go to college? How many classes, say in mathematics, history, language, etc. fail to connect the dots of the interconnection of fields and value of knowledge? Some classes educate the mind through memory/enhanced recollection, a type of brain exercise, data base development? Many of us are concerned about movement down the path of functional seeking of information, analysis and use of data, clarity of thought, wisdom, the confidence and sense of self that allows the process to expand for the lifetime of the beneficiary.
If we are more successful in helping the expanded, interactive, optimistic, exploratory learning process succeed, a larger percentage of students will probably find a path to College education. The percent to College can be seen as a byproduct, perhaps a measure of program success, not a measure to predetermined objectives that can cause channeling, or diminished self worth. There are many bright, mediocre students, who may be square pegs to the educational system. Some of them become outstanding students when they find compelling opportunities.

Mary  Brancaccio's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Redovich has a point, but the issue in the past has been whether we are offering students choices or just tracking them according to our perceptions of their skills and abilities. I teach a large portion of lower achieving students, and I've seen many of them languish in lower track classes because there are no opportunities to think critically, explore the world, consider their options and possibilities. Under George Bush, federal funding for vocational education was gutted to make way for the provisions of No Child Left Behind. That has certainly led to the near-banishment of any career-oriented learning in high schools. Many of my students want the chance to learn about mechanics, architecture, carpentry, health care and other fields that are rarely touched in the high school curriculum. They have little idea what it takes to enter those field and to succeed.
Should there be career tracks in high school? Absolutely! But we also have to be aware that not every child develops at the same pace, and some of our "late bloomers" are capable of higher level thinking. Unfortunately, we start giving up on them around age 14. Yet brain research would suggest that's too early to abandon hope. I have some students who go on to two-year colleges and discover a passion for international relations, or medicine or another field that their high school counselor would have said was a long-shot. What we have is a factory model of education that assumes all widgets are the same. They aren't. We need flexibility so that students can expand their minds and their interests. By the way, some of our egghead students might benefit from having to work with their hands, too. They might just stimulate an area of their brains that's underused!

Mary Brancaccio

Jensina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I currently teach second grade students at Willis Elementary in Bradenton, Florida. I do not believe that every student of mine is "cut out for" college. Some individuals lack the intellectual ability (students with moderate to severe disabilities) and would be unable to meet the rigorous demands of college. Others do not want to participate in college, not because of ability but because of interest. This should be fine, after all, we need adults with varying interests in this world to keep it going.
I am perhaps the most educated of my friends, yet I am the lowest paid of the group. So, my education level has not made me more wealthy. My choice of profession required me to get a college degree, if not I might not have gone to college and might not have accumulated $20,000 in student loan debt.
As a teacher I tell my students that they need to do their best in whatever they choose to do. I feel by instilling this into them they will become successful whether they attend college or not.

Frank Kelland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It may seem like class-ism, but not every job requires a college education. Today on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" a phone contestant identified himself as a Professor of Lighting at Cal State Fresno. When did "Lighting" become an academic field requiring a degree and a Professor requiring an advanced degree. I run into people with such degrees as Hotel Management - why not just a Business degree specializing in the guest industry. It seems to me that this degree is very limiting. Additionally, serious academic fields are dying because they are not sexy enough.
Let's forget the egalitarianism and the dream of a B.A./B.S. for everyone. Let us make High School rigorous, again, and let the academic cream rise to the top.

Armand Peloquin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I recently finished reading "Lessons For Tomorrow: Bringing Our Schools Back From the Brink" by Edward L. Davis in which he mentions that the future job market will be looking for computer technicians, carpenters, mechanics, plumbers, electricians etc.
As a high school teacher and a doctoral candidate, I am appalled that the main focus of high school is on getting students into college. We are losing those students that are not successful in school due to curriculums which focus exclusively on college. I see many students who would be quite successful in school if the school would bring back vocational/technical programs. I know many contractors who would be willing to take on such students in apprentiship programs as part of their vocational program. Unfortunately most states and the federal government do not fund schools for such programs and so until we bring back these programs we will continue to have students left behind in the academic world and it is a grievous loss to not only the student but to our country as well. Not to belittle higher education, but college degrees are becoming a dime a dozen these days with not many jobs in the economy for college grads. Let's be honest, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, and semi drivers make much more than I do as a teacher. These are quite honorable and much needed professional jobs. The education community in this country needs a wake-up call.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is important to offer our students opportunities, choices, and to do our best so that our students make informed choices. As a High school science teacher in rual california many of my students have no desire to go to university. They still deserve a high school education that will prepare them to be a concerned, educated citizen. It is important that school offer both college prep. and non college prep courses so that all students can learn and be successful. It is also important to provide a vocational education to help the non college bond student get started on a career. It also helps to keep some students in school.

CSchoenke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you! I was a very late bloomer and did not take an interest in my own learning until I was a senior in High School. I went on to get a BFA and now am enrolled in a MAT program. I think most of my teachers thought I was a lost cause! I found something that triggered higher level thinking, curiousity and critical thinking skills but it wasn't math or science! It was art and the intellectual conversations and controversies having to do with modern and post modern execution of it. I think that more people like you should be in charge of how schools get it done!

Helen Diemert's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Schools are for learning and they depend on what is available to learn. Parents and their children who are in serious pursuit of an education do not want to waste their time and opportunity in schools that are primarily entertaining or controlling behaviors. Thus, this proposal could make a difference in schooling for real, basic learning. Here is only the barest description.

As a retired educator, I am recommending a structural change in our educational system for better and faster learning. We ought to staff elementary schools with specialists instead of generalists so that our children can learn richer content and more specific skills. Thus, instead of classrooms organized around the age level of pupils and identified as Grade One, Grade Two, etc., they ought to be curriculum based laboratories. Without changing the number of instructors and facilities or the budget, each classroom might be identified with a subject area and staffed by a teacher who is knowledgeable or who has a keen interest in that field of learning. Six foundational disciplines including Mathematics, Science, Music, Language, Art and Drama ought to be taught by professional teachers who are specialized in one of these areas. Every classroom therefore is a laboratory with appropriate learning aids. Student groups can then work with each teacher in rotation, interspersed with physical exercise. How else can they discover their own potential interests and avenues for future pursuits?

There is much more to explore in this recommendation for an internal re-structuring of our schools, too much to discuss here, but the improvement for learning could be dramatic.

Respectfully submitted, Helen Diemert

Janet's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Did you ever suggest this when you were teaching? I like literacy because I am not restricted to one subject area. A requirement of expository writing can just as easily be science as social studies with or without incorporation of technology. I have found though, for instance that a Math teacher sometimes finds it hard to relate to literacy and the best way to support vocabulary in content. So, as objective and obvious as your solution may sound it may still have some pitfalls without collaboration. After all, statistics is used in Social Studies and Mathematics. I have found that when assumptions about skills are involved teachers tend to point fingers, even if it is deserved, at others for not supporting the skills necessary to teach their subject. It is necessary for teachers to not only be well versed in their own subject matter to be objective about what skills can be integrated across all content areas. Just some thoughts....

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