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Is College Overrated?

Patrick Welsh, who teaches at a large high school just up the road from here (and not in the overly-large school district for which I work), asks that very good question in a piece for USA Today.

More precisely, he wonders whether it’s the right choice for every student.

But how much students with low skills, little motivation and lousy study habits are going to profit from going to college is not so clear. Over the past five years, I have seen students who didn’t have the skills one would expect of a ninth-grader going off to four-year colleges where fewer than 30% of entering freshman graduate.

That means that 70% of the freshman class is likely to end up not with a diploma but a pile of debt. In these days of tight budgets at every level of government, it’s also hard to ignore that these schools are heavily subsidized by the federal government.

Welsh’s school claims that about 80% of their graduates go to college while our district says 92.6% of our graduates go on to “some form of postsecondary education”.

I’ve never seen anywhere in our promotional literature statistics about how many of our graduates actually go on to earn some kind of degree from that “postsecondary education”, or even if the district bothers to ask the question.

However, Welsh asks an even more important question than how many finish: how many needed to go in the first place?

And yet we educators – and most parents – keep giving all kids the impression that without a college degree, they will be on a slippery slope to oblivion and poverty. In fact, for the majority of jobs, what will be needed even more than the subject matter we teachers think is so essential will be what Packer [Arnold Packer, co-director of the landmark study “Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century”] calls soft skills.

The report “Are They Really Ready to Work,” put out by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management, found that the four skills most prized by employers were a work ethic, an ability to collaborate with others, facility in oral communication and social responsibility. “Other than writing and reading English, no academic courses (including mathematics) make the top 10,” says Packer.

Ok, so no one, including Welsh, is saying that high schools shouldn’t prepare kids to attend college after they graduate.

We just shouldn’t automatically choose going to college as their only goal.

And, as it is in most high schools, their only option.

Update 7/11: In this short excerpt from an interview with Seth Godin, he talks about how our schools were organized (he calls it a “conspiracy”) for the now-departed industrial age and how college for many students today is a fraud.

Thanks to Will for the link to the video and for his thoughts on the subject at a very personal level, relating this idea to his two kids who are in the middle of that “college prep” process.

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3 Comments

  1. Back in 1984, my parents would not entertain the idea of military service, and I don’t think that a military career would have been the right choice for me. But for several of my classmates, that would have been an excellent choice.

    Here in Alabama, we have plenty of “non-college” options for High School kids. Lots of welding, mechanic and network management classes at the “School of Technology” for those kids that want or need them. Sometimes these options look like an easy way out of the classroom for kids that are maybe not disciplined enough.

    IMHO, we need to make sure that every kid that *can* do well in college goes to college and gets a chance.

  2. Carl Rosin

    I think back to Thoreau, who was both extremely literate and could build a house in the woods. Sure, he went back to get cookies from his mom in Concord (they say), and he had the luxury of not having to feed a family, but his life was truly in the world — the opposite of what we have come to call “academic” even if it did still embrace the life of the mind. Ironically, that inner life seems to be the essence of his experiment.

    I often wonder how we came to separate the academic from the so-called practical, by which I am NOT suggesting that academic = impractical. Perhaps if there were a wealth of opportunities for our students that expanded the curriculum, the kids would do better in both the academic AND the practical, and would also be better able to decide which path engages them more. What “academic” kid would not benefit from being adept at splicing wires, or knowing not only how to replace a bulb but why it lights up? Sounds like physics. Sounds engaging.

    With the assaults on curriculum coming fast and furious — courtesy of the accountability-mavens high above us — we hunker down and protect our bailiwicks from further incursions. Such a circumstance disinclines us from being creative and opening ourselves up. It’s disturbing that the relative difficulty to measure success in art and music and practical arts makes “accountability”-focused and small-minded “leaders” less willing to emphasize those areas in competition with the core subjects for which easily quantifiable tests already exist.

    Failure of imagination haunts our system. You and Welsh should have us follow you into reenvisioning, and we especially need forward-thinking administrators and school boards to encourage and protect us as we do.

  3. “But how much students with low skills, little motivation and lousy study habits are going to profit from going to college is not so clear.”

    I think that this is the crux of the argument here. If a person has few skills, does not know how to study, and has no drive, then no matter what career path they choose, they are in for a shocker. At College Prep Masters I deal with parents all of the time that show little ambition themselves to help their students, in fact tearing them down and diminishing their abilities. While I am sure that the writer aimed at being constructive, so do the parents, but the result is write the opposite.

    “why I should I strive toward University, now BOTH my dad AND the experts agree that getting my GED and signing up for the Marines sound more reasonable in today’s world.

    While University might not be written on the wall for many students, it is usually a hundred thousand dollar mistake for those who do not, even for those the would have “just gotten by”.

    It is indeed the college prep season, even during summer, as those who prepare for the PSATs in October in hopes of being a doctor or an engineer, and not just the brick layer.

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