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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

Maria Summers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Education should exapand and enlighten the mind and cause students to want to reach out and learn more, no matter what the field of choice. That is what the business of education has forgotten in its process of high stakes testing and reform after reform. I feel if students want to go to college they should be prepared for it. But if they want to go into a vocational school or into the job market they should be prepared for those as well. Keeping in mind however, just because one chooses a path at 17 or 18 doesn't mean that they will stay with that path way through out their career.

Nate Kretzmann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If the sole or even main purpose of college is to get a job to make a living we have missed the point, or the target has moved dramatically. A full spectrum liberal arts college - one that develops EQ as well - prepares one for ALL of Life. It prepares us to live with a nobel cause as citizens in a free country.

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From the perspective of an elementary teacher I see how the pressure of good grades and high standardized test scores affects the students even at a young age. Students are told from the beginning of their school careers that they have to go to college to get a respectable job, when in reality there are numerous jobs out there where they can make a decent living without a college degree. Hopefully when it comes time to choose a career and further their education in whatever way they choose it will be because they are in a profession that they are passionate about, not just for the money. I think it is important that everyone be given the same opportunities, however, high school students should have the chance to explore everything that is out there not just the colleges and universities.

Patricia Tomlinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, all students will not attend college even though the political push seems to be in this direction. I believe this huge push is actually creating a generation of drop-outs. The idea that we have pretty much dismantled our vocational educational programs in this chase for all students being equal puzzles me. I think in some ways it is some sort of class issue. If you do not have a college degree then you are not as good as those who do. So everyone needs to have the same playing field which is the college degree which may or may not help one get a job.
At the moment I teach third graders. One of our discussions at the beginning of each year is "What job would you like to have as a grownup?" The answers are varied from the veternarian, doctor, to the shop owner selling art supplies. So, we have lots of discussion throughout the year how school will help them achieve those nine year old goals.
I also agree our schools have the responsibility for sending out into the world students who have skills as well as the belief in themselves they can make decisions about how best to provide for themselves and their families and positively impact the world around them. A college degree is not necessary for all.

Patricia Tomlinson
Howell, Georgia

Dawn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that way to much empahais is placed on standardizd tests and not preparation of skills needed to be a successful person in the community and in life. Equal opportunity for all students is important. Has anyone started reporting and assessing using "standards based reporting"? It is more of a portfolio method and I feel a truer picture of what a child can do.

Ruth Crates's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Since I am a high school intervention teacher who works with a population of students who will not attend college, I have great concerns. The push is for more academics and more rigorous instruction. That is awesome for College Prep kids. We need to push them. However in my school system, we no longer have Industrial Arts or other vocational programs that benefit the students I work with. Yes, they can attend the Vocational Career Center (but its 30 miles away from our home school) and now even the vocational center is stepping up its game to eliminate some of the programs that were a good fit for my Developmentally Disabled students. I am close to retirement, but still worried about what will happen to these kids in the future.... how are we preparing them for LIFE? I teach a Life Skills class, there are still a couple of Family and Consumer Science classes at our building and a vocational agriculture program but ...... that's it!

Diane Rener's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every village needs a mechanic. There is no shame in doing a job that is not based on a college degree. We are teaching students to aspire to live their lives doing something that makes money and not to live their passion. In fact, we are educating passion right out of our students. They have no desires, goals or even feelings for what they want to do because education is telling them what they should be doing. Education should focus on teaching the beauty as well as workings of the world around them and, at the same time, teach basic habits of mind--creative problem solving, humor, etc.--so that they might succeed in whatever they are going to choose to fill their time with. We are so focused on preparing for the future and we never get to enjoy the present.

Nathan, Belleville West, Illinois, 9th grade's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have an incredible vocational program at my high school. I teach students with learning disabilities and emotional issues. I have had multiple students learn the how to weld and the basics to work with metals, woods, and automotives.
Many of my students do not possess the skills to attend college, but they could function at a vocational school. I, almost always, have to reach out and correspond with vocational schools for my students.
I am glad to see I am not alone in this area.

Shirley P.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that schools spend too much time on trying to teach you things you really don't need. I remember being in high school not too long ago, and learning all these equations and things that I have never seen at any job I have had now as an adult. I agree with the author that it is not constructive to require students to have three or more years in math or science when it is most likely not ever going to be seen again. I felt that high school was for the most part a waste of time with all the requirements. They should have focused more on teaching us real life jobs through more vocational courses. I am a strong follower and believer in education and I do feel that all people should attend college to enlighten them selves and learn. But college isn't necessarily needed to land a high paying job. In most places it's more about experience versus your education. I think that having a degree just sounds more appealing but it doesn't mean you know more than the person sitting next to you. The high school curriculum I feel should be re-evaluated to focus on what the interests are of each student so that school can be exciting, interesting and more beneficial. Students should be prepared more for the real world not just for college.

Vivianna Blanco de Riestra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In America we beleive that money is the key to success. We teach our students that without a college degree they will not be successfull in life.
There many things in life more important than money, we should teach our students that they should be happy with whatever profession they choose. A person can be successful without a college degree.
The school system needs a najor makeover,we need to have more vocational programs to train students that do not wish to attend college. There are many professions out there that dot require a college degree, if the students are trained in high school they can be succesfull in life.

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