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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
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Lyn Sellati's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Cui bono? Who benefits? Obviously the colleges. I completely agree with Mr. Tanski that this is a business proposition to supply consistent paying students to colleges. It's a racket. And while the original article did state that only low to average job wages are in the future, it did not say what is considered low or average. Because I have a feeling that teaching would be a low or average salary, especially in the beginning years. Pope Benedict just told participants in the World Youth Day that materialism is tearing our culture apart. Are educators fostering that destruction by telling students they "must" go to college to get a "good" job? What is good? Lots of money? Or personal satisfaction? Help students find something they love, not something that earns them gobs of cash.

Michelle Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree completely! Our district, like most others, tries to pretend that everyone is going to college. I would love for all of my students to go to college, but the truth is I don't believe that everyone needs to go to college! Some students are not ready for college, they may go in a few years; some students do not need to go to college to do what they want to do. I think that we need to prepare our students to work with each other, use technology, and to think critically.

Sarah Klaiber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Daniel - The majority of my high school students are not 4-year-college-bound. many will attend technical school and most will work at jobs that allow them to work with their hands. While I'm sure you are making statements for the purpose of arguement, I think you are a bit judgemental to label these kids as striving for mediocrity. Let us say that 10 years out of college and working as a counselor I decide that I want to work on cars. Did my college degree prepare me for that career? I would need to apprentice or go to technical school. Someone in the opposite situation would need to attend a 4-year college. This is why we need to approach this idea from both directions.

Michelle Kraus's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been a special education teachers for 26 years, and this has been a huge question for my students . Most schools today push for the college prep curriculum. I feel this is wrong. Not all students want to go to college. There should be a continuum of programs that allow students to experience various options for life and work after high school.
Several schools in NY State provide a vocational program to juniors and seniors. They go 1/2 of their day to experience up to three different fields. Their senior year they choose a field of study. Most come away with some sort of certification. It can be heavy equipment, food prep, cosmetology, child care, ect. This is a great program that must be instituted in more schools.
A personal reflection- my valedictorian son was accepted to one college out of many applied to; my daughter who attended the vocational, digital media arts program her senior year was accepted to all 3 art schools applied to. Is college prep the way to go?? Not for all.

Nancy Russell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As taxpayers and contributers to society, we invest a lot of time and money into students' futures. When I pay for a child's education, I expect to see results. If a child fails through low grades or by dropping out, do I receive a return for my investment, or will I end up supporting that child and their family through welfare, government housing, free health care, and etc.?

I believe we, as a nation, have become so worried about not offending other cultures that we have decided everyone is exactly the same and therefore needs exactly the same "opportunities." However, we all know we are not all the same. One person may have a gift/talent in construction while another person may have gifts/talents in music. Why shouldn't we all have the opportunities to develop our strengths instead of forcing us all into the same mold? It is incredibily restricting and insulting to expect all people to be exactly the same.

Ken Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also agree completely. Not all students are going to go college. We are a small school, but do have a technical school that services all schools in our area. We have about 35% of our students go to this school to learn a trade that they are interested in to get them a job that they will be able to do.

I also have a brother who owns a multi-million dollar business, and he only has a high school diploma. He has very good people skills that any school could never teach him.

I believe the education system needs to make sure all students will have a skill that will serve them well in life, just not prepare them for college.

S. Morford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jay Matthews at The Washington Post's "Class Struggle" blog has an interesting article this morning about new research on the effectiveness of high school Career Academies. In a nutshell, the long-running study found that even though the academies didn't improve test scores and graduation rates, they did produce students who today have higher paying jobs and tend to have more stable family lives than their counterparts. The academies still use a college-prep curriculum, but they are organized into small learning communities with career themes that help to make math, science and language arts lessons relevant. Hands-on projects and apprenticeships let the students put what they're learning to use. This is one alternative style of learning that allows schools to keep expectations high and meet required standards while also keeping students engaged with topics that interest them. You can read the study at www.mdrc.org.See Michelle Kraus' post (7/20) on a similar program in New York state, too.

Michael Bilello's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This blog and the responses to it should be shared with every high school student. I teach 10th and 12th graders in New Jersey and my students feel such pressure to skip learning and worry about grades. Why? to get a good GPA and go to a good college. I ask, "Why are you putting all of this pressure on yourself at such a young age?" The answer that I get most of the time is, "If I don't get into a good college, I won't get a good job." This is drilled into their heads at such a young age and it is making students learn less and be less creative.

I have first hand experience with this topic as I watched as my parents forced my younger brother to attend a community college after he graduated high school with below average grades. They insisted that he would never amount to anything without an education. He countered, that he hated the classroom setting and wanted to work on race cars. They battled for a few years until he picked up and headed to North Carolina. After bouncing around for a year he landed a job in the engine department at Joe Gibbs Racing and makes a fine living. My parents weren't trying to hurt him or stop him from living his dreams, they just did what they thought was best. They didn't have the opportunity to get a college education and wanted better for their kids. The question is, what is better for today's children.

Most people argue that children today play to many video games. They are probably right but just last week the FAA started recruiting students right out of high school to work as air traffic controllers. Why would they do this when the job is so important? Because children who play video games learn the necessary skills for that particular job by just playing.

Lisa Moorehead's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a teacher,I do believe that our educational system needs to be re-evaluated. Everyone assumes that you have to go to college to be successful, but if we look in the news, we can see that it is not necessary. Many people leading the way in the field of computers are not college graduates. In fact, a lot of them are still in high school or have dropped out of college or are still in college. The creators of "Facebook" were in high school at the time. Look at the creators of many of the other search engines. The list can go on and on. I am not saying that we should inform all students of these success stories, because in reality, the likelihood of our students being the creators of the next big thing on the internet is slim. However, I do think we need to look at our students for the talents they do have. I believe that many of our students have strengths and in order to give them the best chances at success, then we should educate according to those strengths, whether it is in math, science, or automotives.

What truly defines success? If it is money, then I guess we, as teachers, are not successful at all. Our society tries to brainwash us into believing that you are only successful when you make lots of money and are famous. But, I believe that success comes when a job is done well. Obviously, we want our students to have as many opportunities as they want and need, but not everyone is meant to be a rocket scientist. I would love to see students have choices when they get to the high school level. If they knew that they would start really preparing for jobs when in high school, then I believe that more students would work harder to receive their high school diploma. The 100% graduation rate in the No Child Left Behind Act would be easier to enforce if a student was studying something that would truly be beneficial to him.

Daniel Mickelson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great points on the previous two postings! After reading your posts, I realized that I had been associating students who drop out or don't attend college with the people that I have seen and interacted with. There are many reasons for students to stop going to school, and I focused entirely on the issue of laziness. I've had friends choose to drop out of college and now they are working at Starbucks making coffee or a retail store checking groceries. Now these people were capable of doing more than this, but they seemed to settle with the mediocre and were not doing their best.
I liked how Anthony pointed out that college is not require for people to do their best in regard to their success. Some careers are better to go into straight out of high school. Automotive work and air traffic controllers seem to be two professions that college is unnecessary for. Therefore, a non-college graduate does not necessarily imply that one is striving for a mediocre career.
You wrote: "But the schools are laboring to maintain a costly illusion -- that the only viable careers are ones that require college degrees." It would seem that much of the business world has accepted this premise as well. A college degree is required for many professions, but it would be silly to demand that your workers gain a soon-to-be-obsolete degree. So maybe the reason for many jobs requiring a degree is it shows that a person has demonstrated fundamental knowledge in that area and that they are willing to study and learn about the specific field. It also shows that a person is "well educated" and there is a difference in literacy, writing, and thinking strategies between college grads and high school grads.
I would be interested to know the percentage of jobs that do not require a college degree and pay more than $40k a year. A career should give one enough money to live moderately comfortably and $40k seems to be a good figure for that, but it would be interesting to know the statistics for $50k as well.
After a quick search on the internet I compiled the following information. According to Simply Hired, a salary informant website, "The average salary for college graduate jobs is $46,000." According to WikiAnswers, "Average Salary for a high school droput is about $21,000. A high school dropout will earn about 65% of what a high school graduate earns." and for a high school graduate "Around 24,390". I know these websites are not the best sources, but a descrepency of about $20k between college grad and high school grad is quite telling. If the schools are working on creating an illusion and companies are buying into that illusion, then the citizens have to meet the expectations that the illusion requires since the livelihood of the citizens depends upon it.



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