Is college for everyone?

by Jeffrey M. Welch

I went to college; most of my friends went to college. My college years were some of the best of my life. There was ever-present intellectual growth, new people, new ideas, and few adult responsibilities... who wouldn't like that? My college years were the years that matured me and turned me into the person that I am today. I wish that everyone could have this experience. There are a number of reasons why they can't.
  1. College is expensive
  2. Some are forced to work instead of learn
  3. Some don't have the drive for advanced education
  4. Some don't have the skills for advanced education
College for a number of reasons isn't for everyone, and yet in K-12 education there is a fiction that is propagated that it is for everyone. While I wish this fiction were a reality, I fear that for too many our total obsession with attending college as the door to the middle class is leaving so many behind. There were, and could still be, other options. There was a time not that long ago that a student could graduate from high school either prepared to go to college, or trained in marketable vocational skills that they could use upon, or even before, graduation.

In the last thirty years, the college for everyone movement has decimated vocational education in the United States. There were numerous paths formerly available for students who didn't or couldn't go to college. There are very few today. The irony is that many of the skills that we could be training students for in high school are the ones that cannot be outsourced. Much of our manufacturing industry has left the US in search of cheaper labor. But we will always need mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, even computer programmers. These and many other fields could easily be trained for in high school, but we have not made that investment, we have actually disinvested in vocational education. Even the term vocational is being scrubbed from the lexicon; today it is called "Career and Technical Education." While there is talk about CTE among some influencers it is too little and too rare.

Russell W. Rumberger, in the Boston Globe, described, "How college prep is killing high school." This is an article that everyone interested in the future of the US should be reading. As a country, we should send more students to college, and we should make college more affordable. But that isn't enough. There will always be some students who are left behind. Were we to have a comprehensive and interesting CTE program in our public high schools, far fewer would be left behind.

When we look at how other countries are competing against us, it is not just in college attainment or 8th grade math scores that we should be concerned. Who are the welders going to be? Who will reconstruct our crumbling highways? We should start to worry about how these young people will acquire the skills for these jobs. They can't easily be shipped overseas. You will not likely import a plumber from India or China, and yet your average plumber can earn as much as a typical college graduate.

Why aren't we talking more about this?