Should All Students Go to College? The Media Obsession
with the Wrong Question
The media is obsessed with covering debates about whether all kids should go to college. There couldn’t be a dumber debate to have in 2010! I was particularly surprised to read the recent article by Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times, which quoted scholars Charles Murray and Richard Vetter, but not Tony Carnevale! In my judgment, having read all three of these individuals’ writings, Carnevale is, by far, the most informed and persuasive on this issue and many other more important issues related to education and work. (Disclosure: Tony Carnevale has served on AAC&U’s board of directors and serves on the National Leadership Council of AAC&U’s LEAP initiative, but is still one of the smartest economists around —and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that.)
Kevin Carey provided today in his blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education a particularly cogent response to all this chatter, noting that, “of course college isn’t for everyone,” but it is indisputable that, “College opens the door to opportunity. Not for everyone and not always, but very often and certainly often enough.” There is, in fact, much evidence (see compelling economic data presented by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown run by Tony Carnevale) to support another of Carey’s points that “college is extremely important and more people need it now than ever before.” The Georgetown Center’s data make it extremely clear that, for most students, college is still very much worth the expense in terms of future opportunities. AAC&U has also compiled a set of PowerPoint slides about the economic value of college learning—and, particularly, the value of liberal education outcomes. These slides—using data from both the Georgetown Center and the Department of Labor—make clear that, whether or not all students “should” go to college or are “well-prepared” to succeed there, we do need more of them to go to college or some other rigorous form of post-secondary education that provides them not only with narrow job training, but with a broad set of skills and abilities.
It is clear, in fact, from the economic data that the American economy will actually be short college-educated workers in the coming years. Some estimate that we will be about 16 million college educated workers short by 2025. We also know that today’s college graduates will hold about ten to fourteen jobs by the time they are thirty-eight years old (according to Department of Labor data). Because of this fact, I am particularly worried about tracking some students into very narrow training programs that may prepare them for an initial job, but not for success over the long term. Let’s be serious—which students do you suppose will be encouraged to pursue these more narrow, noncollege vocational tracks?
Steinberg also notes that many students start college, but don’t graduate. This, indeed, is a big problem, but it does not logically follow that all those students who didn’t graduate shouldn’t have pursued a college degree in the first place because our system failed them and didn’t do what was necessary to help them succeed in a college program. I’m sure they share some of the blame for not graduating—but not all the blame. Many, many of them have the ability to do college-level work, but have been failed by the system at many levels. We also know—as Steinberg points out in his follow-up posting about the 400 comments his column generated—that employers complain about college graduates’ skill levels. (Confirming this fact, see recent data on what employers say about college graduates’ skills and abilities from AAC&U’s LEAP initiative.) Again, why is this considered a reasonable point in favor of sending fewer kids to college? Isn’t it an argument for improving college learning outcomes?
I also must add a comment about what I find to be one of the most pernicious parts of the argument against expanding access to college. Richard Vedder is quoted in Steinberg’s article noting—with apparent shock and dismay—that 15 percent of letter carriers have BA degrees. Why is that a bad thing? Don’t the people who do jobs like letter carrying deserve the many benefits of being well-educated—having a rich life outside of work or being informed citizens and voters, for instance? If we care about our future economy and our future democracy, we need more college students and more college graduates. I’m also betting that Vedder hasn’t asked any of these letter carriers if they value their college educations. I bet many of them do very much, in ways utterly unrelated to their jobs.
The arguments about whether every single student needs to go to college are just diversions that distract from the more important issues—getting more students better prepared for success in college, increasing college graduation rates, and, finally, making sure that all college graduates actually have the skills and abilities they need. Why can’t we read stories in the media about how we might tackle these real problems? They aren’t going to be easy to solve, but America is in big trouble if we don’t solve them.