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
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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?

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Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

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Steve's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The college or bust mania that has been driving public education discussion for more than 30 years. The majority of colleges in this country produce bumper crops of graduates with degrees in subjects that employ few people. At the same time we have been sold this idea that all students must secure a college degree in order to secure a high paying job and the number and variety of technical and vocation l programs offered at the high school level are quickly being eliminated. Next time your car's engine dies or your water heater leaks on the floor, ask your mechanic or plumber what college they attended and what degree they secured. Be sure to hold out for the ivy league grad to do the work.

William Beale's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think if the students won't preform in regular school then they'll do the same in regular. Kids dropout of highschool, not because of its irrelevance to their future but because of pure laziness. So no matter what you do to the education, those who want to suceed, will be successful, and those who want want to be lazy, will always be bums.

William Beale's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bethel Highschool, Junior, 15, Hampton VA
I think that vocation school should be eliminated from all highschools because its giving kids the easy way of getting their diploma. Don't get i believe everyone should have the change to graduate but this way is just to easy and not fair to the hard working student like myself.

Ronisha Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

well i think that we all,as in kids, should consider the fact of getting some sort of education is a good thing. i dont agree with Mr.Dennis Redovich i think that everyone should get a chance to leran something, they may act as if they dont want to learn but they do, so give them a chance.

Bonnie's picture
former HS teacher, MEd, Education Administration, mom of 2

One of the most popular courses at Harvard was Tal Ben-Shahar's class on happiness. His book, The Pursuit of Perfect, outlines his own personal struggle to accept failure as part of the process of being human and the importance of accepting oneself. Here, at one of the nation's most elite universities, students are struggling with this issue and realizing its importance.

Years ago I was reading about happiness as a goal and a parent of my son's friend replied, "If that's the goal, I've failed." He is an attorney with a profitable practice. He "has it all" financially but he sacrificed himself for that goal. Reading about the misery index in this country, he's not alone. For many in and out of education circles, there are fundamental disagreements on the role of schooling in society. There are those who believe schools should help their young maximize their profits under the current economic paradigm. What jobs are going to pay the best in the future? That's what you should major in. Economic success equals happiness. (Having grown up poor myself, that certainly seemed the most important goal.) Then there are those who want schools to help the young change the focus from external (money) to internal satisfaction. Studies suggest that only the lucky ones find both.

Permit me to indulge in an analogy. At an inservice, the speaker tried to explain the way different students view school in a food analogy. Lower income families worry about having enough food to feed everyone. Middle class families know there will be enough food so they worry about the quality of the food. Higher income families know there will be enough and of very good quality, so they worry about presentation. With schooling, educationally impoverished families worry about getting a job. Having the opportunity to go to college and have a career is moving to the educational middle class. The educationally middle class assume their kids will have careers and hope they can have either more economically and/or personally fulfilling careers. The upper class worry about making sure their kids get into the right schools because it ultimately is not about education, but networking and being in charge.

And everyone longs to be the super rich (celebrities, athletes or negatively, drug lords) because they seems to be able to have it all.

Happiness is doing what we Want to do, not Should Want. When we emphasize that everyone Should go to college, we may hinder that inner voice. Ironically, that was the whole idea of a liberal arts education. But when the outcome (getting into college) is more important than the process (learning different subjects, expanding student's horizons) then some students won't value what they are learning. Ask any high school or college teacher and they'll lament about the kids only wanting to know "what's on the test" if it's not on the test (or graded) it is not worth the student's efforts.

Just as we adults are different and want different things out of life, so are our young. Some students thrive on and want the frenzy of a pressure cooker educational system. Just as we need to acknowledge their needs and rejoice if they've found a good fit for them, we must recognize it's not a good fit for all. We're still, as David Tyack and Larry Cuban wrote, "Tinkering toward Utopia." Our construct is still, K-12 then lockstep into college. However, the last 100 years have seen such profound changes. The internet freed us from the knowledge gap. Colleges used to provide knowledge not readily accessible to the general public, hence the reason for the enhanced salary and status. Today, free on-line courses and other information makes skills, attitudes, tenacity, imagination, etc. much more valuable commodities.

Sadly, we are doing a poor job trying to help students figure out, even if they know what they are interested in, how to pursue that interest as a career. Given all else that is asked from schools, perhaps it is not possible for them to tackle this vital question. But, students live in the myopic environment of their neighborhood or the illusionary one in their TV shows and internet. Neither provides good guidance. (Which is why so many young people falter at this stage.) Even those who go to college change majors more than once. In this uncertainty, there is a knee jerk reaction to tell them to go for the careers where we know there is job opportunity, at least in the short term. But then for some, the unhappiness cycle continues.

In Sara Lawrence Lightfoot's book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure the 25 years after 50, she chronicles how people, like herself (she's 62) are reinventing themselves. As we are living longer and can and want to be productive longer, we need to encourage and respect lifelong learning and learners. We should value human potential and efforts at all ages and encourage our young to see education as a not a short Herculean effort from 5-22 years of age, but one of continual renewal and reflection

JaneM's picture

Listen to Dennis because... lots of people have it in there heads to go to college. We need to rethink because it depends on what kind of job you want and you could still get a job without college. Students from high school need field trips to see if you want to go to college, if you don't want to go to college high school should offer better classes----> interesting classes and a variety of courses.

:) 8th grade Central students <3 ya...

JaneM's picture

[quote]well i think that we all,as in kids, should consider the fact of getting some sort of education is a good thing. i dont agree with Mr.Dennis Redovich i think that everyone should get a chance to leran something, they may act as if they dont want to learn but they do, so give them a chance.[/quote]

Dennis never said that we didn't get a chance to learn. He just said we have multiple different options.
We disagree but we still like you.(=
<3 ya....
8th graders from Central.

Sharijo2's picture
GED tutor; starting online Masters in Adult Education soon.

When a student decides, after ten years in the job he trained for in vocational courses, to go on to a new career, that is what community colleges are all about. He/she can pick up the pre-college courses needed, then take courses toward the new career. I do think more emphasis on "How to study" in the high schools would help all students, no matter when they decide to continue their education. Lifelong learning should be the focus in middle and high schools.

Sharijo2's picture
GED tutor; starting online Masters in Adult Education soon.

My son has good study habits, but did not know what he wanted to be as a freshman in college, so he quit and tried several entry level positions in fields he liked. He has used computers for lots of different things since middle school and got an interview to be a computer tech.

He got a telephone interview, and things got interesting. He got an on site interview in two weeks, with the proviso that he buy a certain computer book (at $80) and learn as much as he could from it before the on site interview. He got the job and was Microsoft certified in one year. He now has a rather high level position, and is one of few that doesn't have a college degree for that position.

I am glad he learned how to study in pre-college schools. It's made all the difference.

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