Is College For Everyone?

My answer: NO, with some qualifications and caveats…

Without realizing it, I had an opinion on the topic of college for everyone years before it became a renewed public debate. My view is grounded in my experience as a 28-year college faculty member, presently teaching at a “modified open admissions” college; as an avid reader of writing on education reform; and from conversations with a good friend who is a highly regarded and successful fifth grade teacher at one of Denver’s most diverse public schools.

Economic Benefits of a College Degree

Arguments in favor of college for all typically cite data demonstrating the economic benefits of a college degree when compared with lower levels of educational attainment.  According to U.S. Census data, median incomes for varying levels of education were as follows in 2007 (the most recent year available): high school grads: $32,862; associate’s degree/some college: $40,769; bachelor’s degree: $56,118; advanced degree: $75,140.

These are powerful and clear numbers; however, they mask some hidden realities.  First, education costs money – in fact, ever increasing amounts of money thanks to astronomical inflation in the cost of higher education, leaving many grads in a position to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Another reality is that some degrees pay more than others. Science and technology-major grads earn considerably more than their liberal arts-major grads, especially among those who don’t continue on beyond a bachelor’s degree.  Finally, males earn more than females at all levels, largely thanks to the career choices made by women in order to accommodate motherhood and family responsibilities.

It is also the case that many students start college only to drop- or “stop-out” somewhere along the way, due to a lack of preparation/motivation/maturity, or other issues. Every semester I encounter in my introductory-level classes students who are destined to drop out, for whatever reason. My teacher friend sees alienated and struggling students at the fifth grade level, and we swap stories about the parallels in our respective populations. We are in agreement that SOME training and preparation is necessary beyond high school, although not necessarily college education per se.

More so than Bill Gates’ well-intentioned goal of 80% high school graduation with college-readiness by 2025, I agree with the skeptical views of educational commentators like Paul Richlovsky, Paul Krugman, Thomas J. Hanson, and Michael Mazenko. In a May 2011 blog Richlovsky said, “You need not despair in the future if you don’t have a college degree. Pay more attention to enhancing your work skills and making the most of supplemental, job-related educational opportunities.”

A Better Goal than College for Everyone

We will always need sanitation workers, plumbers, and a few factory workers, just as we desperately need highly trained engineers and technology experts. Rather than college for everyone, perhaps a better goal for Gates would be for 80% of all high-tech jobs in the U.S. to be filled by qualified American college graduates — graduates who come out of re-tooled U.S. public schools and colleges with strong support for STEM education at all levels (for those with the interest and aptitude), from elementary school through college. Let’s also make sure there is equally sound education and training for students with non-collegiate goals and interests.

The following are other folks’ blog posts and columns that sometimes address this topic:  Paul Krugman, New York Times, Op-Ed    Thomas J. Hanson    (see March 27, 2011)   Paul Richlovsky         (see May 2, 2011)  Michael Mazenko    (see Nov. 9, 2008)

The 99% Protest College Costs

I read with interest an article in the Nov 27, 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education: “Debt Protestors Denounce Colleges For Broken Promises.” Eric Hoover’s article described the interesting ways in which Occupy Wall Street activists are protesting the high cost of attending college, including the possibility of mass pledges of intention to default on student loans (about which I have mixed feelings). In general, I found myself identifying with the plight of protestors at two levels:

Exorbitant Tuition Increases

First, knowing that college costs have increased 466% over the last 25 years, far surpassing the overall inflation rate of 107%, and even exceeding the inflation in health care costs, I feel for students and families today. Having walked away with my undergraduate and graduate degrees with relatively little debt thanks to scholarships and grants, I feel incredibly lucky, and terribly sympathetic for current students.

Secondly, since I launched my education consulting practice in 2007, just as the recession was getting going, I believe I have suffered along with many other small business folk just starting out (and established folks too) who are perceived as offering services that can be “done without” in the present climate.

Help With Reducing College Costs

While I do a fair amount of pro bono and discounted work as do many independent educational consultants, this generally means that I’m not yet making the sort of living I aspire to make, while at the same time many students and families aren’t getting help that might make a difference — including a difference in learning about ways of reducing the cost of college.  Ironies abound.

For my own part I plan to continue raising my voice in protest against much of what is happening with the ever-expanding lack of accessibility of higher education, while at the same time disabusing clients as much as possible from the mistaken belief that the best education must be the most expensive education.

A version of this blogpost will appear this week on the website of the Independent Education Consultants Association: