College for all ‘is critical to President Obama’s plan’

by Grace

From the White House website:

Ensuring every American can attain a college credential is critical to President Obama’s plan for creating an America Built to Last.  With two out of every three new jobs requiring some postsecondary education, completing college has never been more important.  However, it’s also never been more expensive.  Students are borrowing more to attend college—about two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients, in fact, and rack up an average debt at graduation of over $26,000 in federal and private student loans.  While a quality higher education remains a sound investment, students and families need to clearly understand the costs and benefits of each college they’re considering so they can easily compare choices and identify the best value prior to enrolling.

From Robert Samuelson’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post:

It’s Time to Ditch the College-for-All Crusade

The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good. It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II, even though higher education’s expansion also ranks as one of America’s great postwar triumphs….

We overdid it. The obsessive faith in college has backfired.

For starters, we’ve dumbed down college. The easiest way to enroll and retain more students is to lower requirements. Even so, dropout rates are high; at four-year schools,fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate within six years. Many others aren’t learning much.

Samuelson goes on to give other reasons for his view, including how high schools have been undermined in the switch a predominantly college-prep mode.

Terminology is a problem in this debate.  One of the authors of a recent report about the growth of post-high school certification for career readiness described it this way.

The problem is one of nomenclature. The completion push is really about “postsecondary education and training for all,” said Carnevale. But “that doesn’t fit on anybody’s bumper sticker.”

This is true, but for most people “college” translates to a traditional scholarly four-year experience.  Furthermore, because the value of a high school diploma deteriorated in the foolhardy move to prepare the vast majority of students for “college”, high schools have failed in the mission to make all graduates “college- or career-ready”.  This leaves us in a predicament where almost everyone probably does need to enroll in a postsecondary institution of some kind.

To muddy the debate some more, in another initiative to improve high schools the Obama administration seems to be contradicting its assertion that everyone needs to attend college.

The goal for America’s educational system is clear: Every student should graduate from high school ready for college or a career.

We should try to get on the same page.  Everyone should try to use more descriptive language so we can realize that we all probably agree more than we disagree, and that K-12 reform is at the root of the higher education bubble.  High schools are failing to produce graduates ready for college or career, partly as a result of the college-for-all movement.  A traditional four-year college is not right for everyone, and we should stop pretending it is.

12 Comments to “College for all ‘is critical to President Obama’s plan’”

  1. This is what Obama actually said (from his State of the Union address a couple of years ago): “Tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”

    I don’t think everyone should go to a traditional 4 year college, but I definitely support the idea that everyone needs some kind of postsecondary education. It is pretty clear that people with just high school degrees are not doing well at all in today’s economy.

    It is simply a misquote, propagated by lazy journalists, to say that Obama thinks everyone should be getting a bachelor’s degree in medieval studies or chemical engineering or similar.


  2. “Tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.”

    If it’s just one year of college or vocational training, a strong high school education should be able to provide the equivalent (unless it’s something very specialized). Of course, if you have a strong high school education, you can do 4 years of college with no sweat, academically speaking. It’s only the people with weak K-12 educations that this one year is a big step forward for. And they will probably spend that one year struggling in remedial courses like doomed prehistoric animals at the La Brea tar pits.

    I keep remembering the thing I mentioned earlier about how Germany regards (or at least used to regard) American high school plus two years of American college as equivalent to a German high school diploma. It’s insulting (and overgeneralizing), but I can’t say that they don’t have a point.


  3. “It is simply a misquote, propagated by lazy journalists, to say that Obama thinks everyone should be getting a bachelor’s degree in medieval studies or chemical engineering or similar.”

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think too many journalists have claimed that Obama has said that. More likely journalists report that Obama wants everyone to go to college, and readers make up their own minds.

    Perhaps the laziness comes when they do not make it abundantly clear that Obama simply wants everyone to get some post-secondary school training. But the administration should accept some blame in being “lazy” themselves. Looking at the quoted paragraph above, it’s easy to see how some minor changes could have improved the clarity of their message. When they explain that “completing college” is essential and then use a bachelor’s degree to illustrate the student loan issue, it’s understandable how the message becomes unclear. That’s why I say everyone should be more clear in the language they use. And of course we all agree that no one ever has a political agenda to push as they’re crafting their message. 😉


  4. I think high schools used to be much better at vocational instruction. Samuelson argues that high school vocational instruction has declined partly due to the college-for-all push, which does seem logical. It’s consistent with the Lake Wobegan effect, where we want to believe that everyone can and should be successful in attaining a college degree.

    I thought this was funny – a high school commencement speaker tells graduates they’re not special.


  5. “…high school vocational instruction has declined partly due to the college-for-all push…”

    It’s also probably a liability nightmare.


  6. But there are other high school activities that also pose liability issues, so I wouldn’t think vocational instruction is that much more of a problem. Sports and chemistry lab, along with school trips would seem to require good insurance coverage. Are you thinking of training that uses dangerous machinery?


  7. “Are you thinking of training that uses dangerous machinery?”

    Oh yeah. Remember that female Yale wunderkind who died after getting her hair stuck in a lathe?

    One of my high school teachers had a story of a shop teacher colleague who had a close call when the tie he insisted on wearing to class got caught in some sort of saw. The whole shop is full of powerful machinery that cuts, crushes, and pulls you in.

    Even the horses from Bonnie’s high school are pretty dangerous. One well-placed hoof in the head, and you won’t wake up.

    It may factor in that the vocational students are on average more of a handful than the traditional college prep students, and hence more likely to not follow directions or to horse around while working with dangerous equipment.


  8. One of my kids has told me chem lab stories that make me gasp a little, and I can only imagine other possibilities when you have one teacher and a room full of teens.


  9. There was a lot of fooling around during biology dissections when I was in high school, but somehow chemistry was a much more serious place. I expect that was due to the fact that 1) the less serious never made it into the chemistry classroom (thanks to the profusion of non-college prep classes like General Science and Earth Science) and 2) Mr. S was a skilled raconteur. Before we set foot in the lab, he had a long and vivid series of lab accident stories to share with us, along with an equally vividly presented safety talk. To this day, despite being a more liberal artsy type and it having been over 20 years ago, I remember that we pour acid into water, not water into acid.

    I suppose any experienced shop teacher will have lots of grisly stories to share from personal experience, and if not, there’s always the internet. (Yesterday, I was reading a table saw story where the kid’s family got $75k. It wasn’t clear that the school was at fault in any way.)


  10. Votech costs money. Those horses in my high school’s equine program cost money, as did the offset press and litho camera that we used in our printing technology program (I actually took a course in that, the only votech course I ever took). My high school had abyssmal academic standards back then – high dropout rate, and many funtionally illiterate students. Standards across the district were low. When the push to improve happened in the 90’s, they had to finally spend money on academics. For example, when I went through, we didn’t do labs in chemistry or physics because there was no equipment. Once they were spending money on things like lab equipment, there was no money left for votech. I suspect that has happened in many places.

    I also think that high school needs to be concentrating on simply graduating students who can read and write. I would rather see the votech programs come later.


  11. “Those horses in my high school’s equine program cost money…”

    Yes, indeed.

    “Votech costs money.”

    And they need new, improved equipment at regular intervals. For instance, there’s new safety technology that keeps table saws from slicing off fingers. If you buy it, that’s an expense, but if you don’t buy it, it’s a liability issue.

    “I also think that high school needs to be concentrating on simply graduating students who can read and write. I would rather see the votech programs come later.”

    Well, if the school hasn’t taught kids to read and write in the previous 9 or 10 years, what hope is there that they will finally learn in high school, given the distractions of sports, romance, and Facebook?

    I think this is where I would make a pitch for the importance of subject matter in learning subjects like reading and writing. Beyond the most basic phonics level, reading and writing are closely entwined with content, with recalling, acquiring or transmitting subject area knowledge. When we talk about “reading and writing,” for older kids, we should always be asking ourselves, “reading and writing what?” Being an expert reader of 19th century novels is quite different than being an expert reader of explosives handbooks or bicycle repair manuals. I don’t think we have to choose between vocational education and reading and writing, because the vocational area itself can supply the material for a whole lot of reading and writing, as well as supplying the motivation for working on the reading and writing. (You’d probably want a partnership with a CC or local business so that some equipment and training could be off-site.) And on the math side, if a high school can graduate students who really can do the sort of math that a small business does, if they can figure out if a business is making money or not, and if they can skillfully maneuver through the world of taxes and credit offers from friendly bankers and car salesmen, I think US businesses will finally stop complaining about American high school graduates. On the one hand, none of that is very mathematically sophisticated. On the other hand, mastery of these practical subjects is actually quite uncommon, even among people who have had a respectable amount of algebra.

    I think that we’ve in the past suffered a lot from the use of the vocational track as a euphemism for remedial. At least when I was in high school, “business math” was a euphemism. The sort of program that I’m talking about would involve teaching very basic stuff, but making sure that students knew those basics inside and out. (And what about the ones that don’t? Presumably the ones who mastered the material would get certificates and those who didn’t, wouldn’t.)


  12. I agree that basic reading and writing skills are a higher priority than votech, but it could be that introducing vocational education could actually help that goal. I tend to agree with Samuelson, who says that pushing college prep for all has worked against giving everyone at least a basic education.

    I wonder how willing employers would be to help fund and participate in vocational programs? Locally, they seem to play an important role in vocational training for disabled high school students.


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